Photos: Leah Jones, David W Carmichael, Mark Nayman, Danny Karwoski, S I Robi, Edwin Martinez – all via Wikimedia Commons
When speaking about distinguished athletic achievements, many times we forget to mention the talented women athletes who push the limits of human physiology and show the world that supreme athleticism has no specific gender form. The list is long, but here are just five athletes, from Israel and abroad, from various sports branches that I chose to shine some light upon.
1. Yael Arad, Judo
Number one on my list goes to our very own legendary Yael Arad. In the Summer Olympics of 1992 in Barcelona, Arad took the silver medal in the Judo half-middleweight (up to 61kg), making her the first Israeli athlete, male or female, to win an Olympic medal. Only three and a half months prior to the tournament, Arad underwent surgery on her right knee that required her to go into an intense and expedited rehabilitation program so that she would be able to participate in the Olympic Games.
While active, Arad had a successful international judo career, which included seven gold, eight silver and nine bronze medals. She is also credited with making Judo known to the mainstream Israeli public. The Jerusalem Post wrote about Arad: “When the history books of Israeli sport are written…the name of Yael Arad will be one of the most seminal.” Could the young Judoka, Yarden Gerbi, Bronze medalist of the 2016 Olympics be her successor?
2. Alexandra “Sasha” Cohen, Figure Skating
Amongst her numerous medals, this Jewish American figure skater is the 2006 Olympic silver medalist, a three-time World Championship medalist. Cohen is the daughter of Galina, a Ukrainian ballet dancer who immigrated to the United States. Cohen inherited her mother’s love for dance and took it to the ice. She is regarded by many experts as one of the most musical and artistically expressive skaters in the history of the sport.
Fun fact: in 2014, when Cohen was 30, she participated in the Taglit-Birthright program, a 10-day heritage trip to Israel for young Jewish adults from the Diaspora. During the program, the participants are encouraged to discover new meaning to their Jewish identity and their connection to the land of Israel.
“I had always wanted to come to Israel” said Cohen regarding her Taglit experience. “It was a dream of mine for years. I promised myself that I would visit when I had time. I believe that every Jew has to know his past in order to live his future.”
3. Silvi Jan, Football (soccer)
Jan, born and raised in Netanya, resorted to joining the boys' football team at her school because there was no women's league. At 22, when Jan decided to pursue a professional football career she moved abroad and eventually signed with the Norwegian team, Kolbotn I.L. Jan scored 12 goals during her first season and was considered one of the best female players in the world at that time. She was offered Norwegian citizenship, but she knew Israel was her home. Soon after the Israeli Women's League ,which she helped initiate, was established , Jan returned home , and signed with Hapoel Tel Aviv
After a fruitful football career, Jan retired having scored a total of 1,010 goals. Jan is regarded by many as the best Israeli female football player of all time. Today, she is a member of Athena - The National Project for the Advancement of Women in Sports.
4. Suzanne “Sue” Bird, Basketball
Bird is an American-Israeli professional basketball player; she represents the United States, her birth country, in international tournaments. Growing up, Bird was talented in nearly every sport she tried, and she especially enjoyed playing tennis, soccer and running track, but her passion for basketball was what eventually led her to pursue it as a career. After a very successful college basketball run, Bird signed with the Seattle Storm of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). In fact, Bird was the first overall pick of the 2002 WNBA Draft.
So far, Bird has won two WNBA championships (2004, 2010), four Olympic gold medals, (2004, 2008, 2012, 2016), and led the WNBA in assists three times (2005, 2009, 2016). She was, and still is, considered one of the most prominent players of the WNBA.
5. Shahar Peer, Tennis
Peer, the Jerusalem-born tennis player, is the highest ranking Israeli tennis player, male or female, thus far. During her career, Peer won five international competitions, reached the quarter finals of Grand Slam contests in Australia and the United States and also represented Israel at two Olympic tournaments.
In February, earlier this year, Peer, 29, announced her retirement, due to chronic shoulder inflammation and loss of passion for the game.
“I look back on this experience with a huge smile, a lot of happiness and satisfaction,” Peer wrote in her retirement announcement on various social media platforms. “I am proud of all of my accomplishments as well as the huge honor I was given to represent the state of Israel.”
There is no doubt Peer represented us well. She won 45 of 76 combined singles and doubles Federation Cup matches for Israel, and also led the team to its first and only World Group appearance in 2008. At the pinnacle of her career, she ranked 11th in the world and had a chance to share the court with some of the greatest names in tennis and give them a run for their money… which brings me to my Honorary mention.
Although she’s not a local, I thought it wouldn’t be right to write about extraordinary women athletes without mentioning Serena Williams, one of the greatest, active athletes in the world. It’s almost unnecessary to say which branch of sports she’s in, as you can ask most people to name three tennis players, and they’ll most likely mention Williams as one of them.
The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) ranked Williams world number one in singles on seven occasions, from 2002 to 2017. Williams is the only tennis player in history (man or woman) to have won singles titles at least six times in three of the four Grand Slam tournaments, and the only player to have won two of the four Majors, seven times each (seven Wimbledon titles and seven Australian Open titles). Williams is also the only tennis player to have won 10 Grand Slam singles titles in two separate decades. And even more extraordinary, she won the 2017 Australian open, while she was eight weeks pregnant.
As women, we work, raise families, are active in our communities, and some of us even manage to exercise, play sports and even become world champions. While we have these things in common with our male counterparts, unlike them, we do all this many times concurrently with carrying babies, breastfeeding, and during our periods, which we keep a secret. So let us celebrate, not only the fact that, yes, we CAN do it, but the fact that we actually DO it! Because, we do it all.