The debate on whether males or females are better (or if they’re actually equal) has raged on for centuries, and the field of sports has certainly not been spared from the discourse. Of course, the issue is still up for discussion, but any conversation involving gender comparison in sports has to include the acknowledgment of particular facts. For one, because of the differences in their genes, males are, on average, stronger than females. Secondly, in terms of athletic performance, records from the Olympics beginning 1983 show that the male athletes have outperformed the female athletes by a mean of 10% for each event. Those facts certainly suggest that athletics may be one area where men enjoy a clear and significant advantage over women. And yet, throughout history, there have been several instances when females have outperformed males in sports.
Here are ten of the most memorable moments when women beat men in athletics:
10. Sonya Thomas at the 2003 National Buffalo Wing Festival Competition (Eating)
Weighing less than 100 pounds, Korean-born American Sonya Thomas doesn’t look like she eats much, but she’s actually one of the top-ranked competitive eaters in the world. In fact, she goes by the nickname “The Black Widow” because of the regularity with which she beats men up to five times her size in eating contests. In 2003, Thomas won the National Buffalo Wing Festival competition, where she competed alongside men and downed 134 buffalo wings in 12 minutes. She followed that up with 6 more titles (2004, 2007-2011) at the same eating meet, but she also made waves at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. While she has never won there while competing against men, in the 2004 edition of the competition, she gobbled up 26.5 hotdogs in 12 minutes — at that time the most for any American competitor, male or female.
9. Jackie Tonawanda def. Larry Rodania at the 1975 Aaron Bank’s Oriental World of Self-Defense Show (Mixed Martial Arts)
Jackie Tonawanda, dubbed “The Female Ali” of the 1970s and 1980s, can be considered among the pioneers of female professional boxing. She was, after all, one of the three women who successfully filed suit against the New York State Athletic Commission to be issued a boxing license. Jackie further cemented her legendary status on June 8, 1975 when she became the first female boxer to fight in Madison Square Garden. Shockingly, her opponent at the Aaron Bank’s Oriental World of Self-Defense was a male, kick-boxer Larry Rodania. Even more impressively, Tonawanda won the bout via a second-round knockout.
8. Julie Krone at the 1993 Belmont Stakes (Horse Racing)
As a child, American Julie Krone was already an accomplished show rider due to her performances in competitions in Western Michigan, but that wasn’t enough for her. She dreamt of emulating the career of professional thoroughbred jockey Steve Cauthen. And on January 30, 1981, Krone took a step towards making her dream a reality by debuting at the Tampa Bay Downs in Florida. Just two weeks later, Julie won her first race, establishing herself as a racer to reckon with. Then, in 1993, Krone accomplished something no woman had ever done before; she won the 1993 Belmont Stakes while riding Colonial Affair. That made Julie the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race. Certainly, that victory influenced voters to induct her into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and the Cowgirl Hall of Fame. But Julie certainly wasn’t done. In 2003, Krone also became the first woman jockey to win a Breeders’ Cup race when she rode Halfbridled in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita.
7. Pam Reed at the 2002 and 2003 Badwater Ultramarathon (Running)
In July, the sun over Death Valley, California is usually at its most cruel, but that weather is considered perfect for one of the most extreme marathons of all — the Badwater Ultramarathon. The race is run over 135 miles beginning in Badwater, the lowest point in North America, and ending on Mt. Whitney, the highest peak. In fact, because of the tough conditions, Irina Reutovich’s record-setting run of 29:48:27 in 2000 was considered virtually unbeatable by women. For this reason, it took a lot of convincing before 41-year-old Pam Reed, an accomplished marathoner, agreed to take on the race. However, when she did so in 2002, Reed broke Reutovich’s record by a stunning 1 hour and 52 minutes. Furthermore, it took more than 4 hours before the next competitor, male or female, was able to cross the finish line. And Pam proved it was no fluke by winning the race again in 2003.
6. Chyna def. Jeff Jarrett for the WWF Intercontinental Championship (Professional Wrestling)
While pro wrestling is more entertainment than sport, there’s no doubt that professional wrestlers are true athletes. With her unbelievably well-developed physique, Chyna was billed as the Ninth Wonder of the World, and on October 17, 1999, she attempted to prove that she was truly a spectacle of the planet. It was on that day at No Mercy that Chyna took on Jeff Jarrett for the WWE Intercontinental Championship. She had previously faced Jarrett for the title during Unforgiven, but lost. This time, the setup was a Good Housekeeping Match, which allowed the combatants to equip themselves with household items strewn inside and outside the ring. In the end, Chyna pinned Jarrett after nailing him with his own guitar, and that made her the first and only woman to own the Intercontinental Championship. What places Chyna on this list is the fact that she was so physically imposing that her defeating a man for the title was actually believable, something few women in WWE have ever been able to achieve.
5. Kelly Kulick at the 2010 Tournament of Champions (Bowling)
On June 4, 2006, New Jersey bowler Kelly Kulick made history by becoming the first female pro bowler to earn an exemption on the Professional Bowling Association (PBA) tour, thus allowing her to compete in every PBA event for the 2006-2007 season. Soon after the accomplishment, Kelly set for herself the goal of becoming the first woman to win a PBA Tour title. And when Kulick finally accomplished the feat, she did so on one of the grandest of stages: the 2010 PBA Tournament of Champions. Kelly had qualified for the tournament by winning the inaugural PBA Women’s World Championship, but she proved her worthiness to participate in the prestigious competition by outscoring Chris Barnes in the final, 265-195. After her historic victory, Kulick beamed, “Obviously, this is a turning point for my career and women’s sports in general, but I would really like to see the whole sport benefit.”
4. Michaela Hutchison at the 2006 Alaska High School State Meet (Wrestling)
Females wrestling against males is not really that unusual. In fact, in 2005, 17 females qualified for state wrestling championships where males also competed. However, Michaela Hutchison from Anchorage, Alaska made history in 2006 by becoming the first female wrestler to win a state championship where males also competed.
She had actually been exposed to the sport through her brothers, two of whom were state title-holders before Michaela became one. However, it was still something special for the Hutchinsons when Michaela was able to score an escape with just 16 seconds left in her championship match, thus enabling her to win 1-0. Actually, her victory wasn’t that much of a surprise as she had entered the state tournament as the #1 wrestler in her weight class. In fact, Hutchinson finished the season with a 45-4 record, including 33 pins — just one pin shy of the state’s single-season record.
3. Anky van Grunsven at the 2000, 2004, and 2008 Olympic Games (Equestrian)
Equestrian is one of only two Olympic sports wherein men and women compete against each other on equal terms. Quite impressively, one individual — a woman from the Netherlands named Anky van Grunsven — has managed to dominate the individual dressage field by winning gold in three successive Olympic Games (2000, 2004, 2008). That is, in fact, the only time the feat has been accomplished by any man or woman in riding. Perhaps even more amazingly, when van Grunsven won her second gold medal at the 2004 Athens Games, she was pregnant with her first child. She gave birth to that child the same year, and in succeeding years, further increased her Olympic medal tally that today totals 3 golds, 5 silvers, and 1 bronze collected over seven successive Olympics.
2. Danica Patrick at the 2008 Japan Indy 300 (Auto Racing)
By the time Danica Patrick was named the 2005 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year, the auto-racing world already knew that the woman was a champion in the making. However, it would take a few more years until the Wisconsin-born American finally accomplished the inevitable. It took place on April 20, 2008 at the Indy Japan 300. In Patrick’s 50th career IndyCar start, she finished more than five seconds ahead of pole-sitter Helio Castroneves. Through the victory, Danica became the first woman to win an IndyCar race. “It’s a long time coming. Finally…. this is fabulous,” she gushed.
1. Billie Jean King def. Bobby Riggs at the 1973 Battle of the Sexes (Tennis)
Before his retirement in 1951, Bobby Riggs was considered one of the best tennis players in the world with his six majors and three years at #1 (1939, 1946, 1947). However, even after Riggs stopped playing the game for a living, he continued to remain in the tennis spotlight by promoting the sport and expressing his opinions on its progress. One of Riggs’s strongly stated opinions was that the female game of tennis was inferior to that of the males’, and that at 55 years of age, he could still defeat any of the top female players. He was even able to back up that statement by beating Margaret Court, then the #1 female tennis player, in am exhibition match on May 13, 1973. However, Billie Jean King, also another top female player, eventually proved Riggs wrong by defeating him 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 on September 20, 1973. There were many, though, who were left unimpressed by King’s accomplishment as she was 26 years younger than Riggs. Furthermore, there was speculation that Riggs had purposely lost the match to settle his gambling debts.