‘Strong Like A Woman’: Alex Morgan, Diana Taurasi, Billie Jean King & 97 other game-changing women

By Laken Litman
FOX Sports Writer

Editor’s Note: This story is part of FOX Sports’ series commemorating the 50th anniversary of Title IX, which was enacted into law June 23, 1972. The series tells the stories of significant women in sports today, both celebrating the progress that has been made and recognizing the barriers that still remain.

When I spoke with Tara VanDerveer for a recent story, the legendary Stanford women’s basketball coach said something that we all know but that can’t be repeated enough.

As we approach the 50th anniversary of Title IX, I had asked her what she thinks we all need to do to ensure women’s sports keep moving in the right direction.

“I think it’s the job of parents with younger children, the job of coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioners. It’s one of the biggest challenges in the media,” VanDerveer said. “There’s not the same coverage of girls’ and women’s sports that there is for boys’ and men’s sports. Every day, there needs to be articles about women playing sports, whether it’s professional soccer, softball, basketball, volleyball.

“Young girls need these role models and heroines to aspire to.”

Tara VanDerveer has led Stanford to three national championships, 13 Final Fours and 14 Pac-12 Tournament titles. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Her comments couldn’t be truer. And “Strong Like A Woman,” a book I wrote in conjunction with my former employer, Sports Illustrated, and Rizzoli, is for those young girls who need role models and heroines to aspire to.

This book chronicles and celebrates 100 of the greatest female athletes since 1954 (when SI began). No, they are not ranked, but rather, they are listed in alphabetical order. It would be impossible and unfair to categorize these athletes in a list from No. 1 to 100. They played different sports in different eras and accomplished different things.

The pages are filled with stories about extraordinary, trailblazing, influential athletes, including Simone Biles, Lisa Leslie, Janet Guthrie and Mia Hamm. Althea Gibson, Megan Rapinoe, Ann Meyers Drysdale and Susan Butcher. Wilma Rudolph, Serena Williams, Peggy Flemming and Trischa Zorn. 

Below, we’ve included three excerpts highlighting the lives and careers of Billie Jean King, Alex Morgan and Diana Taurasi.

As King wrote in the foreword to “Strong Like A Woman,” a theme that has woven itself into the fabric of women’s sports is equal pay. As she recalled, “It began in 1970 with the Original Nine of women’s tennis, who not only started women’s professional tennis as we know it today but also opened the door on the equal pay discussion — eventually achieving equal pay at all four major tournaments in 2007. Women’s tennis was — and is — the leader in women’s sports. Today, the equal pay conversation is alive and well in soccer and hockey; it’s part of the dialogue of all women’s sports in the 21st century.”

Without the passage of Title IX, who knows if that conversation would exist today. There’s a good chance it wouldn’t. Women who grew up in a pre-Title IX era or in the early days of the law’s passing could only dream about playing team sports, earning scholarships and competing in professional leagues. VanDerveer said she and her teammates at Indiana back in the 1970s used to fantasize about it over dinner.

“Someone would say, ‘Someday, there’s gonna be professional [women’s basketball], and Tara, you’ll be a GM,’” she said. “Then someone would slap the table and be like, ‘Haha wouldn’t that be so funny? Someday games will be on television!’

“You could not even imagine. Like, it was beyond our imagination.”

Today, young girls grow up in a world where they might not even know about Title IX because they can reap the benefits their sports godmothers worked so hard to achieve. Earning a scholarship, playing on national TV and competing in the WNBA is no longer such a wild idea.

Make no mistake: There’s still a lot of work to be done. That’s why “Strong Like A Woman” is an opportunity to not just reflect on how far women have come in 50 years but also inspire the next generation to keep going.

“Strong Like A Woman: 100 Game-Changing Female Athletes” is available for purchase at Amazon.com and other booksellers.

*** *** ***

It seems like there’s nothing Alex Morgan hasn’t done or can’t do. While most people know her as the captain of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, she is so much more than that. For starters, Morgan is a superstar goal-scoring machine who is a two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist. But her legacy will encompass even more. 

She has taken a stand for gender equality and is fighting for equal pay. She has created a media company geared toward women with other female Olympic athletes. She has appeared on countless magazine covers and posed in body paint for the 2012 Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue because, as she told the magazine then, “I wanted to help young women feel comfortable in whatever body type they have.” She has brought her baby girl with her to every single game and tournament around the world, showing how women can be professional athletes and mothers too.

USWNT’s Alex Morgan scores first goal since becoming a mom

USWNT's Alex Morgan scores first goal since becoming a mom

Alex Morgan scores off a beautiful assist from Sophia Smith to put the USWNT up 5-0 over Argentina in the 2021 SheBelieves Cup.

In 2019, Morgan was a Time top 100 most influential person of the year. She’s friends with Taylor Swift. She has more than a dozen sponsors, including Nike, Coca-Cola and AT&T, and there’s even an Alex Morgan Barbie doll. She’s the New York Times bestselling author of “The Kicks,” a children’s book series about a young female soccer player. As Grant Wahl wrote for Sports Illustrated in 2013, before she became the household name she is today, “One of Morgan’s most remarkable achievements … may be that she’s done all of this without generating open resentment from her peers.”

Everything she does has purpose, from her ventures in business and marketing to being one of the greatest soccer players of all time. Morgan was the youngest member of the national team at the 2011 World Cup, where she scored goals in the semifinals and the final loss to Japan. Somewhat of an unknown 21-year-old then, Morgan’s Twitter following boomed from 15,000 to 135,000. A decade later, after becoming a USWNT leader, an international role model for young girls and women everywhere, and winning the Silver Boot at the 2019 World Cup, Morgan has nearly four million followers, which is considerably more than any other U.S. soccer star, including the likes of Abby Wambach, Christian Pulisic or Landon Donovan. 

Alex Morgan is a two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist. Credit: Simon Bruty/Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Back in the early days of her national team career, Morgan’s teammates nicknamed her “Baby Horse” because of her lanky gait. But now, according to teammate Megan Rapinoe, she’s a “full-on stallion.” 

Heading into the 2020 Tokyo Olympics (which were postponed to 2021 due to COVID-19), the forward had 109 goals and 43 assists. She made the roster one year after giving birth to her daughter. She has experience playing in Europe — she played in Lyon in 2017 and Tottenham in 2020. And she’s a member of the NWSL’s Orlando Pride, where she plays alongside several USWNT teammates, as well as Brazil legend Marta.

As soon as Morgan joined the national team, she was considered to be the heir to Mia Hamm’s legacy. She was mentored by Wambach, who was ahead of the curve when she told Sports Illustrated in 2013 that Morgan would be the face of women’s soccer. “She’s not just a pretty face,” Wambach said. “So much attention on women in sports is based on looks, but Alex backs that up with even stronger athleticism. I’d absolutely compare her to David Beckham in terms of her appeal. And this national team has kind of missed that element. … Alex, being a forward, really is the perfect storm. She’ll benefit women’s soccer and women’s sports in a larger scope.”

Morgan is married to MLS player Servando Carrasco, whom she has been with since their freshman year at the University of California, Berkeley, where they both played from 2007 to 2010. They have one daughter named Charlie. Morgan still has so much of her career left. On the field, she has at least one (if not more) Olympics and World Cup to play in, and off the field she’s really just getting started.

*** *** ***

Diana Taurasi is on the short list of the greatest women’s basketball players of all time. She’s a three-time WNBA champion and a former No. 1 overall pick by the Phoenix Mercury. She’s a three-time NCAA national champion and was a two-time Naismith College Player of the Year at the University of Connecticut. She’s a former rookie of the year, a nine-time WNBA All-Star, a six-time EuroLeague champion and a two-time WNBA Finals MVP. She also won league MVP once, though it probably should have been more. She was the basis for the WNBA logo and is known as the “White Mamba,” a nickname bestowed upon her by the “Black Mamba” himself, Kobe Bryant. 

And she’s a five-time Olympic gold medalist. In fact, Taurasi and former college teammate Sue Bird are the first basketball players ever to win five Olympic gold medals, solidifying the duo, as their UConn coach, Geno Auriemma, told ESPN, as “the greatest teammates in the history of sports.” Her bio could go on for pages and pages of statistics and awards. Teammates have called her “ferocious.” Auriemma has described her as “all the things you do not want to compete against. But she’s also all the things you want in a teammate.”

“The quality Taurasi shares most with, say, Michael Jordan is that she hates to lose,” Michael Bamberger wrote for Sports Illustrated in 2003 after Taurasi led UConn to three straight NCAA titles. “For good or for bad, she turns games into wars. You can’t readily see it because she masks her attitude with Magic Johnson’s joie de basketball. Still, chances are good that you will lose to Diana Taurasi in H-O-R-S-E, or in arm wrestling, or in John Madden 2003 PlayStation football. Pretty much, you’re not going to beat her at anything.” In 2003, UConn was 85-3 since Taurasi had arrived on campus in the fall of 2000. She finished her four years there with a 139-8 record, which included a 70-game winning streak. After Taurasi led the Mercury to the 2009 WNBA title, scoring a game-high 26 points and making four of her last five 3-point attempts, Jack McCallum wrote this about her for his Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year nomination: “That’s what she does. It’s part of the cutthroat brio that defines her. She’s the same way off the court, aggressive, open-minded, free with her opinions.”

Taurasi’s father, Mario, was born in Italy and raised in Argentina, and her mother, Liliana, was born and raised in Argentina. Their daughter was born in California, spoke Spanish, picked up basketball in the fourth grade and became one of the most sought-after high school players in the history of the women’s game. Despite her mother’s initial wishes for her daughter to stay closer to home, Taurasi traveled 3,000 miles across the country to Connecticut for college because she knew she had to play for Auriemma. He would challenge her in ways she’d never experienced. When she enrolled at UConn, Auriemma told her that she could be the best player ever, according to a story Frank Deford wrote for Sports Illustrated in 2003. Her sophomore season, UConn went 39-0, and she played alongside four other senior starters who would be taken in the top six of the WNBA Draft, including No. 1 overall pick Bird. The next season, Taurasi was the lone returning starter on a team full of inexperienced players. She led them to a title anyway.

Taurasi has played her entire pro career for the Phoenix Mercury. She is the only player in WNBA history with at least 9,000 career points, 1,500 rebounds, 1,500 assists, 1,000 3-point field goals and 300 blocks. Only 10 NBA guards can say the same for themselves, with James Harden the only other active player. Taurasi, who is married to former teammate Penny Taylor and has a son, headed into the 2021 season approaching age 40 with various injuries but no plans to retire. She told ESPN she’ll know when it’s time to call it quits: “I say this to a lot of my good friends: ‘The minute you see that I suck, tell me, and I’m out.’ Instead of lying to me, someone let me know!” 

Until then, she has no desire to stop playing the game she loves. “People ask me what I want to do after basketball,” Taurasi told ESPN in a 2020 interview. “I’m doing basketball right now. I’m doing everything I can to be on the court. Not to be in the front office, not to coach. My sole objective is to be on the court and to be badass.”

*** *** ***

Where do you even begin with Billie Jean King? She’s a pioneer, a symbol, an equal opportunist, an activist, a role model and more. As Sally Jenkins wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1994, “Tennis is Billie Jean King’s passion, but activism is her true game.” She won 39 Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles and is one of the greatest tennis players of all time. But her on-the-court accomplishments aren’t what make King such an icon. “She isn’t happy unless she is championing a cause, whether it’s professionalism on the court or feminism in the world at large,” Jenkins wrote. 

King’s impact is felt in every women’s locker room, past, present and future. She paved the way for all female athletes, from the girls’ youth softball team at the YMCA to the U.S. women’s national soccer team to the Williams sisters. She fought for women’s equality everywhere and, in doing so, “made a whole sport boom because of the singular force of her presence,” Frank Deford wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1975. King didn’t start playing tennis until the fifth grade. Her first favorite sport was basketball and her second favorite was softball. But, as the story goes, King fell in love with tennis after one lesson and later told her mom she was going to be No. 1 in the world. She eventually held that ranking for five years.

As Jenkins wrote, King became a significant force in changing the culture of the sport from old-time elitism to modern professionalism. As an amateur playing in Long Beach, California, she fought for “equal consideration” with country club players. As a professional in the height of her legendary career, she demanded equal prize money in the men’s and women’s games. In 1971, King became the first female athlete to earn more than $100,000 in prize money. And after that, she helped create the women’s professional tour and became the first president of the Women’s Tennis Association.

Billie Jean King won 39 Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles. Credit: Tony Triolo/Sports Illustrated

Then, in 1973, came one of the most famous moments in her fight for equality. In front of a worldwide audience of more than 90 million people, King, then 29, played “self-proclaimed chauvinist” Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. Riggs, 55, said that the women’s game was inferior to the men’s, and King set out to prove him wrong. She did, beating him 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 in a match that was extensively written about. The story was eventually made into a movie as well. “So every time a little girl beats her brother in a game of pop-a-shot or a sorority girl plays flag football, you might credit King,” Jenkins wrote. “There is little in the realm of sports for women that she did not help nurture. Among other things, she was a vocal advocate of establishing college athletic scholarships for women through Title IX legislation; she helped create the Women’s Sports Foundation, a fundraising organization for amateur athletes; and she helped found WomenSports magazine, which shared her conviction that you did not need a male genetic imprint to read about athletics.”

King was later inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987 and became the first woman to have a major sports venue named in her honor. The USTA National Tennis Center in Flushing, New York, where the U.S. Open is played, was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in 2006. Her many other accomplishments and honors include being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2009 for her advocacy work on behalf of women and the LGBTQ community and forming the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, a nonprofit organization that promotes inclusive and diverse leadership in the workforce. In 1990, Life magazine named her one of the “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century” — this was not in a category of just sports figures but all Americans, and she was the only woman on the list. 

King, who lives with her partner and former tennis player Ilana Kloss in New York City, will always be known as one of the greatest sports figures of all time. And, as Kloss once described her, King will forever be known as the “people’s champion.”

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously covered college football, college basketball, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and the Olympics at Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. Her first book, written in partnership with Rizzoli and Sports Illustrated and titled “Strong Like a Woman,” was published in spring 2022 marking the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

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