Sporty Style: 7 Inspiring Women Olympians from Decades Past

French discus thrower Micheline Ostermeyer, 1948 London Olympics
Concert pianist and gold medal-winning discus thrower Micheline Ostermeyer at the 1948 Olympics. Image via

If you can believe it, in just a few shorts weeks we’ll be celebrating the arrival of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. We thought we’d get a head start in the inspiration department by sharing some  of our favorite vintage snapshots of awe-inducing female Olympians. These photos and others remind us of how far we’ve come since the days when women were only allowed to compete in a few sports and Title IX didn’t yet exist, making these early Olympians even more inspiring athletic icons.

U.S. swimmer Paula Jean Myers-Pope, 1960 Olympics in Rome
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The United States’ Paula Jean Myers-Pope competing in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, where she took home silver medals for the 10-meter high dive (pictured above) and 3-meter springboard dive. During her Olympic career, Myers-Pope won three silver medals and one bronze medal. She was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame for her achievements.

Alice Coachman
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Alice Coachman was the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Here she is competing the high jump in the 1948 London Olympics, where she earned her historic title as gold medalist. This track and field phenom first attracted attention in 1939, when she broke the Amateur Athletic Union high school and college women’s high jump records… while barefoot!

Nadia Comaneci
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Romanian gymnast Nadia Comăneci performing a routine on the balance beam during the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal, where she earned seven perfect scores and three gold medals. She was the first female gymnast to ever earn a perfect score, and she later went on to earn two more gold medals in the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.

Image via Boston Public Library.

American Helen Wills won two gold medals in tennis at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris in addition to a number of national and international titles during her career. Her achievements in tennis earned her international celebrity. Wills also exhibited her artwork in New York galleries and penned two books on tennis and co-wrote a mystery novel called Death Serves an Ace (1939).

Image via

Dutch athlete Fanny Blankers-Koen running the 80-meter hurdles, which she won during the 1948 Summer Olympics in London for a total of four gold medals in athletics. She accomplished this feat as a 30-year old mother of two children, for which she received intense criticism for during the time.

“I got very many bad letters, people writing that I must stay home with my children and that I should not be allowed to run on a track with — how do you say it? — short trousers,” Blankers-Koen told The New York Times in 1982. “One newspaperman wrote that I was too old to run, that I should stay at home and take care of my children. When I got to London, I pointed my finger at him and I said: ‘I show you.'”

Image via

Hungary’s Ildikó Újlaky-RejtÅ‘ at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where she won the gold medal in the individual foil fencing event. She was deaf and received instruction from her coaches via written notes, and became one of the best female fencers in the world.

Do you plan on watching the Olympics on July 27? Do you have a favorite Olympian?


About Erin Ellis

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  1. Avatar
    Crystal 07/02/2012 at 2:39 pm #

    Yes, can’t wait for the Olympics to come to Tokyo! I have a quick question, ModCloth! I love the Accessories Buyer’s picks on the site, is there a way I can email him/her to say a quick hello?

    Thanks! x

  2. Avatar
    Crystal 07/02/2012 at 2:40 pm #

    Sorry, I meant to London* not Tokyo! x Crystal

  3. Avatar
    Mary 07/02/2012 at 7:43 pm #

    A girl I went to high school is going to be in the Olympics this year. She is a weight-lifter. True inspiration and a great role model especially for young women. Here is a link to an article about her.

  4. Avatar
    Kyri 07/02/2012 at 10:38 pm #

    Being a fencer myself, I find Ildikó quite inspiring. I can’t wait for London!

  5. Avatar
    YouLookAwesome 07/03/2012 at 6:03 am #

    They’re inspirational just to look at!! What amazing photography

  6. Avatar
    Cindy (ModCloth) 07/03/2012 at 5:12 pm #

    Great post and great photos! These women are incredible.

  7. Avatar
    Sophie 07/05/2012 at 1:53 am #

    These women are amazing… I love the Olympics! I’m rooting for a few people from my university who’ve qualified and are on various teams, but otherwise I’ll be cheering madly for anyone from the USA!

  8. Avatar
    kittenhood 07/11/2012 at 2:56 am #

    It’s sweet that you mention Nadia, she is a national legend 🙂 and still going strong with charity work these days.

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