Most of the people we consider the “greatest athletes of all time” are members of older generations, like baby boomers and Gen Xers, such as Michael Jordan and Usain Bolt. Even recent sports events are dominated by millennials, but as Gen Z (those born roughly between 1996 and 2010) grows older, many female Gen Z athletes are starting to (literally) change the game.
Being an athlete has always been about more than just excelling at a sport, for the greats. Many athletes choose a cause to promote during their time in the spotlight, showing their commitment to making the world a better place in addition to showcasing their physical talents. Many athletes throughout history have committed to fighting against racism, discrimination, and other barriers to social change.
This group of Gen Z athletes is no exception. Here are some Gen Z women who have been excelling at their sports while also branching outside of athletics to create change in the world.
- Coco Gauff: Tennis
Coco Gauff is a 19-year-old tennis player who quickly rose to fame when she beat one of her idols, Venus Williams, in a Wimbledon match at age 15. Since then, Gauff has won countless other competitions, even qualifying for the 2021 Olympic Games that she unfortunately had to miss when she tested positive for COVID-19.
Gauff’s achievements at such a young age are impressive, but she has shared that her quick rise to fame left her with mental health struggles. In 2020, the then-16-year-old shared with Defender that the pressure she felt as a young athlete led to her feeling depressed and losing her passion for her sport. However, Gauff made it clear that she was committed to breaking barriers in tennis.
Gauff has recently been praised for calling out a chair umpire for unfair treatment compared to her opponent during a match. NPR host Michael Martin commented on the situation, “Sports isn’t just about the ball, right?” On Sept. 9, she won her first Grand Slam title at the U.S. Open, making her the 11th teenager to win a Grand Slam singles title and the youngest American since Serena Williams did it in 1999.
- Sha’Carri Richardson: Track & Field
Sha’Carri Richardson is a 23-year-old sprinter who competes in the 100- and 200-meter races. Most recently, she won the U.S. 100-meter title in summer 2023, making her a potential qualifier for the 2024 Summer Olympics. She is also officially the fastest woman in the world, running this race in 10.65 seconds. Richardson had been a contender for the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, but was disqualified after testing positive for THC, the active ingredient in marijuana.
Richardson shared that she took the drug to cope with her mother’s sudden death. She said that this event left her in “a state of emotional panic,” and told Savannah Guthrie on The Today Show, “Don’t judge me because I am human.” This prompted many to praise Richardson’s candor and defend her against criticism because she had nothing to apologize for. Since 2021, Richardson has shared that she takes responsibility for her actions, and has continued to work hard toward her goal of Paris in 2024.
- Angel Reese: Basketball
Angel Reese is a 21-year-old basketball player at Louisiana State University. The forward player has committed to empowering other women athletes throughout her time on the court. In July, Reese announced the Angel C. Reese Foundation, “which will be dedicated to empowering girls and women through sports, education, financial literacy and more,” according to Variety.
The foundation will provide resources to systematically disadvantaged young women, so that they have the best chance to excel in sports. Reese has already been an inspiration to young basketball players, after the LSU Lady Tigers won a national championship last spring.
- Lindsey Zurbrugg: Basketball
Another basketball player who has been an athletic inspiration is 24-year-old Lindsey Zurbrugg. Zurbrugg has a rare neurological condition called Tethered Cord Syndrome, which left her paralyzed from the waist down at age 13. Already an avid basketball player, Zurbrugg was determined not to let her disability keep her from her passion.
“For women my age, the hardest thing is accepting who you are. You don’t have to be like somebody. Don’t try to be like them. Be the best version of yourself. Don’t worry about those other people,” Zurbrugg told College Basketball Times.
She is now a member of the United States women’s national wheelchair basketball team, and she represented the U.S. in the 2020 Summer Paralympics and the 2022 Wheelchair Basketball World Championships.
- Simone Biles: Gymnastics
Simone Biles has been a household name for years — with seven Olympic medals and countless other broken records, Biles is known as the GOAT for gymnastics around the world. In recent years, however, Biles has also been an extremely vocal advocate for mental health.
During the 2021 Olympics, Biles withdrew from several team and individual events to focus on her mental health. She was experiencing the “twisties,” a condition where gymnasts lose track of their position while in the air during flips, according to ABC News.
Instead of risking her mental and physical health, Biles chose to take care of herself. “I have to focus on my mental health and not jeopardize my health and well-being,” Biles said. While she received some backlash on social media for this decision, according to CNN, the majority of her fans were inspired by her bravery. Biles’ decision ultimately sparked a nationwide discussion about the importance of mental health.
- University of Nebraska Volleyball Team
Nebraska’s women’s volleyball team recently set a world record for game attendance, with 92,003 fans in attendance as the Huskers beat Omaha 3-0. This accomplishment was obviously impressive for the team, but it also highlights important changes being made in the NCAA.
Historically, women’s sports have been treated very differently than men’s. In 2020, men’s programs received more than double the funding than women’s programs. In 2022, however, interest was growing in women’s sports, leading to more of a focus on women’s sports in the NCAA. With that, attendance was increasing, and Nebraska’s record will hopefully only increase interest across the country.
All of these women are doing incredible work, not only in their sports, but in the real world.