Meet The Trailblazing Female Athletes Competing With Men
Playing to defeat their male opponents — and gender division in sports.
Whenever a sports team composed of women plays a game, it is referred to as a "women's team." Their male counterparts, however, are simply considered a "team," with no explanatory adjective needed.
This argument has long been invoked when discussing women's secondary place in sports, and the battle is ongoing. Earlier this year, American soccer hero Meghan Rapinoe appeared in Congress to testify about the U.S. Soccer Federation's unequal pay between women's and men's teams.
But some women are taking a different path to assert equality, challenging the very idea of gender division in sports. The past two decades have seen a rise in female athletes joining male teams, both at the scholastic and professional levels. This month, for example, a Spaniard made handball history when she was the first woman to play in a senior men's match.
Here's a look at six determined women who've shaken up how we see sports by joining their male counterparts on the team:
Mireia Rodríguez, handball, Spain
Mireia Rodríguez and her teammates of the Club Balonmano Albacete
Club Balonmano Albacete via Facebook
Mireia Rodríguez recently became the first woman in the history of handball to play in a senior men's match in Spain's central region of Castilla La Mancha, La Vanguardia reports. The 31-year-old professional athlete took part in her first game with the Club Balonmano Albacete on November 7, scoring a goal when she entered the court at the 21st minute. Her team eventually won 31 to 26.
Last month, the club announced it had been granted permission from the Castilla La Mancha Handball Federation to register Rodríguez as a new member of the team, which currently plays in the country's second division. The athlete moved to Albacete last summer to follow her husband Ruben Martinez, a professional soccer player but discovered there was no professional female handball club in Albacete. She then contacted the club's coach José Maria Valerio, asking to train with the team just to stay in shape. He accepted.
At her first training, Rodríguez impressed the other players with her "speed, technique and agility." It didn't take long for the club's president to suggest she join the team. It still took two months of intense lobbying from the club to the regional and national federations, and of rereading all the rules to check there was no restriction before she became part of the team. Rodríguez said she hoped her experience would "open doors" for other female athletes to take part in male competitions and that anyone should be able "to practice the sport they love, whether being a boy or a girl."
Ellen Fokkema, soccer, The Netherlands
Ellen Fokkema is playing in the VV Foarut's fourth-division senior men's soccer team
Anne Waterlander/X-lent/VV Foarut
In August 2021, Ellen Fokkema became the first woman in the Netherlands who was granted the right to play in a fourth-division senior men's soccer team in the changing the rules of Dutch football in the process, Trouw reports.
Fokkema had played for the VV Foarut club from the ages of 5 to 19. In the Netherlands, teenage boys and girls have been allowed to play together in the same youth football team but after the age of 19, female players have to make a choice: join a team exclusively for women or a category B men's team (the reserve team of a club in the fourth division or lower).
Fokkema, however, wanted to play in VV Foarut's A team. The club asked the Dutch federation for a dispensation, which was turned down at first. After some persistence, the young woman eventually got the green light and actually prompted the federation to launch a one-season pilot to assess whether women could compete in top-flight amateur men's football.
Women soccer players in other countries are also making their way into men's teams: professional Japanese striker Yuki Nagasato, who's currently part of the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) club Racing Louisville FC, joined an amateur male team in 2020 when the pandemic interrupted the NWSL season. It made her the first female footballer to play for the A team of a Japanese men's club.
Eri Yoshida, baseball, Japan
Eri Toshida in 2009
Bruce Stotesbury/PostMedia News/ZUMApress.com
She was nicknamed the "Knuckle Princess." In 2008, at just 16 years old, Eri Yoshida was drafted by a professional men's baseball team, the Kobe Cruise 9 in the Kansai Independent League — a first for a woman in Japan.
But the pitcher would go even further two years later, when she signed a contract with an American team, the Chico outlaws, becoming the first athlete to play professionally in two countries and only the third woman to play in the U.S. male professional baseball leagues.
She succeeded Julie Croteau, who was the first woman to play men's NCAA baseball in 1988, and Ila Borders, a professional pitcher who played in men's leagues from 1997 to 2000.
Charlotte Cagigos, ice hockey, France
Charlotte Cagigos, backup goalkeeper of the French Drakkars de Caen
Only one woman in France skates a professional hockey team. Charlotte Cagigos, 20, became the backup goalkeeper of the Drakkars, a team from northern France playing in Division 1, the second highest level of the ice hockey league, in August 2020.
"When I was little, I would have loved to see a girl playing on a top team and have her as a role model. I don't necessarily want to become a symbol but I'd just like to show that it's possible for little girls to play hockey," she told France 24 television network.
Cagigos started skating at 3 (following in her big brother's footsteps) and enrolled in a sports study program at 14 before joining the Drakkars Under-17 elite squad in 2017 and then climbing the team's ranks step-by-step. Cagigos is now working to become the number one goalkeeper but says she still "has a lot to learn and experience."
Ice hockey has the particularity, in contrast with other collective sports, that a female player can work her way into a male team as a goalkeeper — a position that requires more technical than physical skills. Canadian player Manon Rhéaume was the first woman ever to play in the National Hockey League in 1992, paving the way for others such as Shannon Szabados, also in Canada, or Florence Schelling in Switzerland.
Jen Welter, American football, United States
Jen Welter, first female coach in the NFL
Jen Welter is not only the first woman to hold a contact position in a professional men's American football game, she was also the first female coach in the NFL.
After playing rugby in Boston College, she played for the Dallas Diamonds Women's Football Alliance and at the International Federation of American Football's Women's World Championships in 2010 and 2013. In 2014, at 36 years old, she was the first woman to play a non-kicking position in a men's pro game. One year later, the Arizona Cardinals hired her as an assistant coaching intern.
The passionate athlete is also a sports psychologist, personal trainer, endorsement model, and motivational speaker. She follows in the footsteps of Patricia Palinkas, the first woman to play in a men's semi-professional game in 1970.
"I'm an athlete, I'm competitive," Walter told USA Today daily. "But the bigger thing for me is obviously for little girls to see they can do everything just like little boys can."
Fabiola da Silva, inline skate, Brazil
Fabiola da Silva, World Champion and 8x X-Games Medalist
Brazilian Fabiola da Silva, also known as "Fabby", was crowned world champion in inline skate at just 18, and is today the most decorated female athlete in X-Games history. She won the competition seven times, received a silver medal in 2004 and became the first woman ever to land the double backflip on a vert ramp in 2005. Yet, only a few people outside of the extreme sports world would even know her name.
She also happens to be the only woman to compete against men in any X-Games sports, aggressive in-line vert, according to Brazilian Globo.
Da Silva was known to skate faster, harder and more fearlessly than any of her fellow female skaters. So much so that in 2000 the Aggressive Skaters Association introduced the "Fabiola Rule", allowing women to compete in the formerly all-male vert competition.Since then, she has placed in the top ten several times as she competed against men. "A lot of girls think girls aren't good enough to be skating against the guys," she reported to Los Angeles Times. "I just think different. If I see a guy doing it, I think it's possible for a woman to do it also. Why not?"