Each year, the Women’s Sports Foundation celebrates the incredible performances of an individual sport athlete and a team sport athlete at the Annual Salute to Women in Sports Awards gala. As we prepare for this year’s Annual Salute and a new group of highly talented and inspirational women take to the stage, we decided to reflect back on those who have come before. Debi Thomas, Sheryl Swoopes, Bonnie Blair, Mia Hamm and Natalie Coughlin have had the distinguished honor of receiving The Sportswoman of the Year Award and continue to live out the Foundation’s mission and lead the way off the field of play.
Debi Thomas – Figure Skating, 1986 Individual Award
Debi Thomas won the individual Sportswoman of the Year award in 1986 the same year she took home the national and world championship titles, making her the first African-American to win a non-novice title. She went on to compete in the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary where she earned bronze and became the first African-American to win a medal at the Winter Olympics. Thomas graduated from Stanford in 1991 with a degree in engineering and retired from skating the following year. She went on to Northwestern University Medical School and is now an orthopedic surgeon. Proving to be just as driven in the medical field as she was as a skater, in 2010 she opened her own practice where she specializes in hip and knee replacements. Her love for the sport of figure skating continues as she remains on the US Figure Skating Sports Medicine Committee and the US Olympic Sports Medicine Committee.
Sheryl Swoopes – Basketball, 1993 Team Award
Sheryl Swoopes was a dominating figure in her sport of basketball. She attended Texas Tech University where she set over 10 school records and scored 1,000 points in just 46 games, a shorter period than anyone else in school history. In 1993, she was instrumental in helping her team earn a bid for the NCAA Championship and posted 47 points in their final matchup against Ohio State University to secure their victory. That same year she was honored as the Sportswoman of the Year – team recipient by the Women’s Sports Foundation and was named MVP of the NCAA Final Four Championships. After graduating from Texas Tech, Swoopes continued to play for the USA Basketball Women’s National Team where she earned three Olympic gold medals. Swoopes helped raise the bar for female athlete endorsements when Nike launched a line of basketball shoes named after her in 1995, making her the first woman to receive such an honor by the brand. In 1997, she became the first member to be drafted into the WNBA where she was a multiple time MVP. In 2013, Swoopes embraced a new role in basketball when she became head coach at Loyola University Chicago. Her son continues his mother’s outstanding legacy on the court as a member of the men’s basketball team at Texas Tech.
Bonnie Blair – Speed Skating, 1994 and 1995 Individual Award
The most decorated woman in Winter Olympic history, Bonnie Blair joined the National Speed Skating Team after high school and competed in her first Olympic Games at the age of 19. In 1994, she became the first American woman to win five gold medals and the first American to win gold in the same event in three consecutive games (1988, 1992, 1994). She earned Sportswoman of the Year twice in 1994 and 1995 following her incredible accomplishments and in 2004 she was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame. Today she is a motivational speaker and donates her time to a variety causes through her own charity, The Bonnie Blair Charitable Fund. She is married to fellow Olympic speed skater Dave Cruikshank with whom she has two children.
Mia Hamm – Soccer, 1997 and 1999 Team Award
Largely considered one of the best female soccer players in history, Mia Hamm played with the US Women’s National Soccer Team for 17 years starting at the age of 15. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she helped lead her team to four consecutive NCAA women’s championships between 1989-1993, except in 1991 when she sat out to focus on the Women’s World Cup. Hamm continued to dominate the field internationally winning the Women’s World Cup in 1991 and 1999, and took home Olympic gold in 1996 and 2004. The Women’s Sports Foundation honored Hamm with the Sportswoman of the Year Award in both 1997 and 1999, the latter being the same year she set a new record for the most international goals scored, a title she held until 2013 when fellow American player Abby Wambach broke the record. She founded the Mia Hamm Foundation in 1999, which is dedicated to bone marrow research in honor of her brother who passed in 1996 from a rare blood disease. Hamm currently serves on the board of directors at the major Italian club, Roma, and is a minority owner of the newly-formed Los Angeles Football Club, which is set to join Major Soccer League in 2017. While no longer playing the sport of soccer, she remains heavily involved on the business side and is committed to teaching her twin daughters and son the benefits of an active, healthy life.
Natalie Coughlin – Swimming, 2003 Individual Award
Natalie Coughlin began swimming at the age of six and by the time she entered high school she was one of the nation’s top young competitors. Despite a minor setback from a shoulder injury, she went on to swim at University of California Berkeley where she earned 12 NCAA titles, was named NCAA Swimmer of the Year for three consecutive years and set new national records, including the 50-meter backstroke in 2002. Coughlin took home five US National titles that same year and the following year was honored as the Women’s Sports Foundations Sportswoman of the Year. She competed in the Olympic Games in 2004, 2008 and 2012 and earned 12 medals – three gold, four silver and five bronze. In 2009, she married her husband Ethan Hall, who is a fellow swimmer turned coach. Following a brief hiatus from the sport after the 2012 Games, Coughlin is back in the pool and showing the world that she is still a force to be reckoned with. Most recently she competed at the 2015 Pan American Games and set a new games record in the 100m free during prelims. While Coughlin may be one of the older competitors racing, she is still a top contender and hopes to qualify to make the Olympic team and travel to Rio in 2016.
Voting is live for this year's Sportswoman of the Year Award finalists. The 2015 Sportswoman of the Year Award winners will be crowned at the Foundation’s 36th Annual Salute to Women in Sports gala on October 20 in New York City.