Worth the Wait: The Nominees for Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year Who Came Back With a Bang

When the clock stopped on sport with the onset of the pandemic, how did the very best athletes react, those for whom the loss of a year of elite competition during the prime months of a short career pushed their goals further into the distance? The Nominees for the Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year Award trained. They prepared. And, when their opportunity came to step back onto the track, to climb into the pool or to pick up their racket, they claimed a place in the history of their sport.
But their achievements went beyond sport. These athletes provided inspiration to women around the world and as we celebrate International Women’s Day 2022 on March 8, our Nominees gave us examples not just of sporting greatness, but of empowerment. Perhaps more than any other, Allyson Felix embodies the ideals of International Women’s Day, which celebrates the achievements of women and the continued fight for gender equality.
Felix‘s achievements in 2021 went hand-in-hand with her activism. The delay to competition caused by Covid-19 could have placed in jeopardy the final act of a legendary career but, at the age of 35, she won her 10th and 11th Olympic medals (in the 400 metres and 4x400 metres relay), leaving Carl Lewis in her wake as she became the most decorated track-and-field athlete in the history of Team USA. Since a life-threatening emergency during pregnancy, Felix has been an advocate for awareness and equality around pregnancy. After lobbying for protection in the sportswear endorsements in which female athletes participate, she won her most recent Olympic medals wearing spikes from the company she formed as a response to these issues.

I always want to give more than I gave yesterday.

Allyson Felix
If Felix’s story across five Olympiads is one of longevity as well as excellence, Elaine Thompson-Herah provided a distilled vision of unmatched speed. At the front of a Jamaican 1-2-3 in the 100 metres final, Thompson-Herah set an Olympic record of 10.61 seconds – the second-fastest time in history. She then secured her second successive Olympic sprint double with 21.53 seconds – again, the second-fastest time ever over that distance. In the sprint relay, she won her third gold of the Games and secured her place as the dominant sprinter of her generation. Thompson-Herah lit up the athletics competition in a way reminiscent of her compatriot, Usain Bolt.
In the pool, two swimmers gave the Games performances that set new standards for those who will come behind them. Katie Ledecky of the United States was already assured of a hall-of-fame career before she won her sixth and seventh Olympic gold medals in Japan. No female swimmer has more and by completing a hat-trick of Olympic wins at 800m she became the first swimmer to win three golds in the same distance event, one in which she also holds the world record. In the sprint events, Australia’s Emma McKeon tied the record for most medals won by a woman at a single Games, with four gold and three bronze. Her golds came in the 50 and 100 metre freestyle and in the 100 metre freestyle and 100 metre medley relays – and she set Olympic records in each of those events.
At 27, McKeon’s success has come relatively late, but it is a product of forging her own pathway in the sport. As she argued, enjoying a balanced life and performing at an elite level are not mutually exclusive. It is a message she now wants to pass on to other young women. “My parents always instilled in me that I had to be happy and enjoy what I’m doing and I need to have a life outside of the pool. I didn’t do everything possible when I was 15. It was a gradual build and that’s why I’m still swimming now. If I’m happy outside of the pool then I’m going to train harder. I did it my way – and there’s not one way to do it. You’ve got to work it out yourself.”

If you believe it will work out, you will see opportunities. If you believe it won't, you will see obstacles.”

Emma McKeon
Ashleigh Barty ended 2021 as the world’s No.1 tennis player for a third successive year and at the turn of the calendar was ready to accelerate away from the chasing pack. However, her 2021 started miserably, with a surprise quarter-final defeat in the Australian Open – her home Slam – and successive retirements due to injury from the Italian Open and the French Open. She did not play again until Wimbledon, where she won her second Grand Slam singles title to become the first Australian winner since Evonne Goolagong Cawley in 1980. Those two are both Indigenous Australians and Barty is the National Indigenous Tennis Ambassador for Tennis Australia, a role in which she promotes increased participation in the sport among young Indigenous Australians.
In football, the ultimate club prize – the Champions League – was the sole property of Olympique Lyonnais for six years. That reign ended in 2021, when FC Barcelona won the title for the first time, defeating Chelsea 4-0 with a phenomenal performance in the final. The scorer of the second goal, from the penalty spot, was their captain and midfielder Alexia Putellas, who lifted the trophy and ended the year as the winner of the Ballon d’Or for the world’s best player. Putellas also broke the record for appearances for Spain’s national team, moving on to 93 caps – aged just 27.
Only one of these extraordinary competitors will receive the Laureus statuette, but each of our Nominees for the Laureus World Sportswoman of the Year Award wrote a new chapter in the story of their sport in 2021 and all are shining examples for the young women who were watching them, wherever their own stories will be told.

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