In this category, The Laureus World Sports Awards celebrate the most talented and inspirational sportswomen of 2020: athletes who have excelled in the sporting arena and who have used their platform to bring positive change to the world around them.
Some have reached new heights in their sport in 2020, others earn their place here by maintaining their dominance despite renewed competition; some compete individually, others are a key component in a winning team. What connects them is their talent and strength of character.
All are true ambassadors for their sport.
ANNA VAN DER BREGGEN
n May 2020, Anna van der Breggen announced that she would retire from cycling at the end of the 2021 season. Three months later, an already stellar career reached new levels that may have had the Dutchwoman reconsidering her decision.
In August, she won the Dutch National Road Race Championship for the first time in her career and then claimed the time trial title at the European Road Championships in Plouay. She was just getting started.
In September, she became only the fourth woman to win the Giro Rosa three times. The Boels-Dolmans rider got the leader’s pink jersey after the eighth and penultimate stage and finished one minute 14 seconds ahead of the field.
Then, Van der Breggen moved on to the UCI World Championships in Imola, where more sporting history was made. After four previous silver medals in the time trial, she won that event for the first time in her storied career and then took the road race, becoming the first rider to complete the double in 25 years.
She also pipped Dane Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig by two seconds to triumph in the Flèche Wallonne in Belgium, winning that race for the sixth time.
Van der Breggen will retire after the delayed Tokyo Olympics and intends to become a sports director for the SD Worx team. She has pledged to support female cycling in her new role.
She said: “It’s a nice feeling to know that I will still work in women’s cycling and still be able to develop the sport.”
Twenty-five years after the great Alberto Tomba last achieved the feat, Federica Brignone ended Italy’s wait for an Overall World Cup champion. It was the highlight of a remarkable year in which she combined her greatest sporting achievement with environmental activism, using her increased profile to highlight marine pollution.
Brignone also won the Combined and Giant Slalom categories at the World Cup, finishing with 1378 points from five wins, six second places and one third.
Off the slopes, the Olympic bronze medallist is a passionate campaigner on the issue of marine pollution. She created her own environmental sustainability project, Traiettorie Liquide (Liquid Trajectories) in 2017 to change mentalities around the value of water as a finite resource.
As part of this, she immersed herself in the sea wearing her skis, helmet, boots and sticks to highlight how plastic pollution is endangering marine flora and fauna.
Brignone said: “I willingly made myself available to the project to dive in the water with my competition outfit to tell you the terrible feeling of being surrounded and suffocated by plastic with enormous difficulties of movement.
“Unfortunately, this is what the fish, the turtles and the inhabitants of our seas are experiencing. We must all work to stop this terrible catastrophe.”
She added: “Since I was a child, I have a strong bond with the sea and many memories having spent the summer holidays there. Sea conditions are changing in recent decades, this is the era of consequences, and it is not just about having a cleaner sea but an ecosystem in balance.”
In October 2020, Brigid Kosgei won her second successive London Marathon, breaking away from a pack which included world champion and compatriot Ruth Chepngetich after 29km and taking the line over three minutes ahead of her nearest rival, the American Sara Hall.
It was a sensational performance by the world record holder, and the latest step on a remarkable journey that began on the road to school in Kenya’s Rift Valley, an area that has produced a staggering amount of champion distance runners.
One of seven children raised by a single mother, Kosgei nurtured her technique by jogging 10km to primary school in the morning. She said: “Sometimes to avoid getting late I would run. On my way, I met athletes who were training and said to myself, ‘I can be like them’.”
Her high school coach, Robert Ngisirei, remembers a girl who combined athletic gifts with a steely mentality: “You could tell she was a very talented athlete even in training, extremely disciplined and competitive; she never liked to be outshone in training.”
Kosgei, who often trains with male athletes, was determined to remain focused during the pandemic restrictions.
She said: “If you continue to put in the hard work, you will see the rewards. Sometimes you have to be more patient than others, and sometimes you may not feel like running, but in the end, it will pay off. You must be disciplined and persevere with everything you have talent in. Put the effort in and the rewards will come. You can’t wait for good things to come to you – you have to work hard for them.”
In a year in which we celebrate both achievement in sport and advocacy, Naomi Osaka’s incredible run to the singles title at the 2020 US Open provided a unique combination of these two elements.
Her opponent in the final was Victoria Azarenka, a former world No 1 who, like Osaka, was seeking a third career Grand Slam singles title. The Belarusian took the first set 6-1, but Osaka played brilliantly to comeback for a 1-6, 6-3, 6-3 win. However, that was only part of her story at Flushing Meadow.
Since winning the Laureus Breakthrough of the Year Award in 2019, Osaka has developed a sense of what she wants to achieve off the court that matches her instincts on it. The first Asian player to have reached world No 1 is now one of the most recognisable stars in tennis and has used her growing global status to campaign on racial and gender equality.
During the US Open, she became one of the most visible advocates of the Black Lives Matter movement by walking onto court for each of her seven matches wearing a different black face mask, each featuring a name of an African American killed in recent years, the majority at the hands of police. Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile and Tamir Rice were the names that Osaka foregrounded on her way to victory. Earlier in the year, she had withdrawn from the Cincinnati Open in protest at the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin, leading the tournament to suspend play for a day in support of the same cause.
On social justice, Osaka said: “I feel like I'm a vessel at this point in order to spread awareness.”
And as she continued to campaign for gender equality, she said: “I think women of all races perhaps can relate more to systemic oppression over the years so it’s no surprise to me that we are finding our voice. It’s really inspiring.”
In 2020, Osaka was named as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World and as one of Sports Illustrated’s Sportspersons of the Year.
Martina Navratilova, 18-time Grand Slam singles winner and Laureus Academy Member, said: “Not known for being comfortable as a public figure off the court, Osaka, the US Open champion, came to understand the power of her fame, then wielded it in eye-catching ways to confront racial injustice and police violence.”
WNBA champion and Olympic gold medallist Maya Moore added: “Watching Naomi Osaka play the US Open, I was inspired by how beautifully she wove her dominant athletic performance into another narrative.
“Believe me, it wasn’t easy. It took incredible focus, courage and intentionality to carry herself the way she did; to use her gifts and talents, her voice and her platform to honour the preciousness of black and brown lives.”
Off the court, Osaka also used her platform to inspire young women and girls through sport. Uniting NIKE, Inc., Laureus Sport for Good and MUFG, and other partners, the Japanese tennis star launched Play Academy with Naomi Osaka, an initiative with the goal of changing girls’ lives through play and sport – starting in Tokyo.
Play Academy with Naomi Osaka aims to help level the playing field by increasing girls’ participation in sport through grants and capacity-building training for community organisations and by emphasizing fun, positive play experiences and coaches who are trained in gender-inclusivity, as well as inviting young women to become role models.
The inspirational captain of Lyon was at the heart of another remarkable season for the dominant team in women’s football. Led by Renard at the heart of the defence, Lyon captured their fifth consecutive UEFA Women’s Champions League – their seventh in ten years.
She has played in all of them, and scored five goals in their 2019/20 victory, including the only goal in a tense semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain. She also lifted the French league title as Lyon secured an incredible 14th consecutive championship.
Renard is one of the greatest players in this generation of women who are taking the sport to new levels of global popularity, and it is a position she had to fight for from the start. She was raised on the Caribbean island of Martinique and lost her father to cancer when she was eight. A teacher told the young Renard that she could never be a professional player because “that job doesn't exist” for women. When she came to France aged 15 for a trial at the national academy, she was rejected. Renard refused to accept that outcome, took the train to Lyon and has been making sporting history ever since. Her experience, she insists, should inspire those who follow her.
She said: “You have to reach for your dreams because everything’s possible: when the first door closes and the second one too – you will force a shoulder through the third one and the whole body through the fourth.
“We all have a destiny. We may drift away at some point but there’s always something that will get you back on track if we believe.”
Renard has also campaigned to end discrimination and violence. Renard said: “Racism has no place anywhere. Let us stay united.”
n the WNBA Finals of 2020, Breanna Stewart showed the world that she was back to her dominant best on the court. But as she closed out a second championship in three years with the Seattle Storm and landed a second Finals MVP award, she also brought to a close a season in which she had emerged as one of the most visible white athletes in support of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States.
Stewart had missed the entire 2019 season with a torn Achilles, and was preparing for a comeback in a Covid-affected 2020 season when protests around police violence and racial injustice spread around the US.
Immediately, Stewart tuned in to what was happening. She played a leading role in the WNBA’s social justice campaign and called for ‘Black Lives Matter’ to be painted on the baselines. On the league’s opening night, it was Stewart who, after the players had walked off during the national anthem, stood alongside New York Liberty’s Layshia Clarendon at midcourt as Clarendon announced the league’s players would dedicate the season to the memory of Breonna Taylor and held a 26-second silence to honour the 26-year-old, who was shot dead by police.
Stewart said: “Black people and the black community have been fighting this for years. To help make real change, white people need to be involved.
“White people need to stand up and support black communities in all ways, and have it be something that happens not just now, during this period of protest, but an ongoing battle.
“We’ll have to maintain energy and continue to speak out, continue to focus on something other than ourselves. It’s a must.”
Stewart is no stranger to using her platform as one of the greatest players in her sport to foreground important issues. She has campaigned on gender-based violence after bravely admitting in 2017 that she was sexually abused as a child. Since then, she has since spoken openly about helping other survivors.
After the 2020 season, Sports Illustrated named her one of their Sportspersons of the Year for her activism off the court and her stance against racism was supported by Megan Rapinoe, the US soccer World Cup winner.
Rapinoe said: “When the moment came for Stewart to take a stand, the WNBA superstar and Finals MVP didn’t hesitate. Her support of Black Lives Matter never wavered, from the season’s opening tip to the Storm’s title celebration.”