Jessica Luther Column: Greatness in Rio Olympics you may have missed

The Olympics are over and I am sad. I am not ready to give up this wall-to-wall coverage of interesting sports, incredible athleticism, and so many female athletes. As I’ve written before, there is no other sustained spotlight on women’s sport and the diversity of female athletes like the Olympics, especially the Summer Olympics.

So, before we say goodbye to the Rio games, I want to highlight some of the spectacular athletes you might have missed:

Kimia Alizadeh Zenoorin and Hedaya Wahba: Alizadeh became the first woman from Iran to win an Olympic medal when she won the bronze in Taekwondo in the 57 kg class. Wahba, who also got a bronze in the 57 kg class, was the first woman from Egypt to medal in the sport. (Note: yes, they won the same bronze medal.)

Alizadeh is eighteen. After her win, she said, “I wish I had made history with a gold medal. I thank God that I made history with my bronze to pave the way for other Iranian women.” She added, “I am so happy for Iranian girls because it is the first medal and I hope at the next Olympics we will get a gold.”

Alizadeh’s win has a larger political context because women are not allowed to attend sporting events in stadiums in her country, and haven’t been since 1979. During the RIo Olympics, Darya Safai, an Iranian woman living in Belgium after having to flee her home country in 1999 following her involvement in student protests there, went to multiple events and held up a banner reading “Let Iranian Women Enter Their Stadiums.”

Sarah Robles: Robles is an weightlifter from the USA who won bronze in the over 75 kg class. It was the first medal by any US Olympian in weightlifting since 2000. She scored this medal by lifting 277.8 pounds in the snatch and 352.7 pounds in the clean and jerk. In order to be able to accomplish such an amazing feat, Robles, standing at 5’ 10”, weighs 310 lbs. Like every other woman who competed in Rio, she has the body of an Olympian.

With the shiny, pokey people at closing ceremonies! The #olympics2016 are over!

A photo posted by Sarah Robles (@roblympian) on

After her clean and jerk that secured her a medal, Robles screamed in excitement, pounded the floor with her hand, stood up, threw her arms up in a victory “V,” and then turned to the side and curtsied, her smile wide across her face. It was an moment of ridiculous athleticism followed by one of pure joy. She told the L.A, Times last week, “It’s cool to be me. I’m big and strong and putting it all for good use.”

Novlene Williams-Mills: Williams-Mills is a sprinter from Jamaica who ran the 4x400m relay in Rio. She earned three medals in this event in previous Olympics: bronze in 2004, silver in 2008, and bronze in 2012.

In 2012, she raced within weeks of finding out she had breast cancer. She told ESPNW about that experience: “Immediately after securing a third-place finish in the 4×400 relay with my Jamaican teammates, I flew back to my home base in the United States. I went from the medal stand to an operating table in the span of three days. Celebrating would have to wait. I was a 30-year-old Olympic athlete, and I had breast cancer.” She had a double mastectomy.

With her Jamaican teammates, Williams-Mills won silver in the 4x400m. She told her teammates before they took to the track that it would be her last Olympic race.

Ashleigh Johnson: Johnson is the goalie of the gold-winning USA water polo team. She played wonderfully in the gold-medal match, making nine saves in the team’s 12-5 victory over the Italian team. One of those saves was against a penalty shot. According to the Miami Herald, “Johnson’s brilliant block of a five-meter penalty shot in the third quarter was critical as the team took a 9-4 lead into the final period.” Johnson was named the top goalkeeper of the tournament, saving 65% of all shots on goal.

[More at Excelle Sports: Q&A With Ashleigh Johnson, Olympic Water Polo Goalie]

Johnson is also the first woman of color to make the Olympic team: “I’m so humbled to be able to present women of color in water polo, and proud to be the representation of a population of people who have the potential to succeed at this sport, and the world and other women of color how much fun water polo is to watch and play.”

She’s only 21, about the start her final year at Princeton. There’s a good chance we’ll see her back in the water for the US in 2020.

Rafaela Silva: Silva, a Brazilian, won gold in Judo in the 57 kg class. She immediately broke down into tears, the weight of a country finally off of her shoulders. It was the first gold medal during the games for Brazil.

Silva had been favored to win a medal in London four years ago but failed to do so. In the wake of that disappointment, this black woman from the Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela located in western Rio de Janeiro, faced racist insults. She recently told the CBC, “‘I was very sad because I had lost the fight,’ Silva says. ‘So I walked to my room, I found all those insults on social media, they were criticizing me, calling me monkey, so I got really, really upset. I thought about leaving judo.’” After winning her gold, she said, “I was a victim of hate. People said that my place was a monkey living in a cage. This medal is my response. This medal has set me free.”

She is now a hero in the favela where she grew up: ‘“She’s one who got out,’ said Douglas Luiz, 16, who juggles tennis balls and sells snacks at intersections to make money. ‘She raised the status of City of God. She has a real-life story. Very few people leave the favela. Her message is always fight and never give up.’”

Alma Ayana: Ayana is a long-distance runner from Ethiopia, who won the 5000m bronze and the 10000m gold, the latter she did by setting a world record. She ran the 10000m (roughly 6.2 miles) in 29:17.45, beating the old world record by 14 seconds. According to Excelle’s Celia Balf, “Ayana’s success came mid-race as she was able to pull away and dominate until the finish. The pace may have been something unheard of but it set the stage for eight other runners to meet national and personal records.”

Ayana started out as a steeplechaser but burst onto the international stage after switching to the distances she is now famous for. She was launched into the big leagues of running when she finished just behind the world record holder in a 5000m race in the summer of 2013. Ayana never looked back.

After winning the 10000m in such a blistering time, questions about whether she had doped came fast. In response, Ayana said, “My doping is my training and my doping is Jesus. Nothing otherwise — I am crystal clear.”


Of course, my list is woefully short. I also wanted to talk about gold medalist shot putter Michelle Carter and her awesome feminism; and the tears and smile of Judoka Emilie Andeol of France after she won the gold; and how 21-year-old Nafissatou Thiam of Belgium upset London gold medalist Jessica Ennis-Hill’s chance for a repeat in the heptathlon; and US hurdler Nia Ali and US cyclist Kristin Armstrong putting their kids on their hips during their celebrations after their medal-winning races (silver in the 100m hurdles and gold in the time trial, respectively); and Sakshi Malik and P.V. Sindhu, the only two medalists from India (bronze in wrestling and silver in badminton); and Japanese wrestler Risako Kuwai’s joyous celebration with her coach after she won the gold in 63kg freestyle wrestling; or all of women’s rugby; and all of the #blackgirlmagic of the US team; and Kayla Harrison getting gold again in Judo; and the teenage Canadian swimming phenom and Olympic medal collector Penny Oleksiak; and the 41-year-old gymnast Oksana Chusovitina from Uzbekistan who qualified for the vault final; and Vivian Cheruiyot of Kenya shocking the world when she blasted past Alma Ayana to win the gold in the 5000m.

Honestly, this was such an exciting two weeks for women in sport, all kinds of women in all kinds of sport, that this was a futile task from the jump. You’ve probably already made your own list of memorable moments featuring female Olympians and there’s a good chance it’s very different from mine. How cool is that? There is too much choose from. It’s the best of problems.

Let’s all bask in the greatness of these women from these Olympics before moving onto the next thing in this ever-changing sports media cycle, one that so often completely ignores female athletes all together.

Thank you, Olympians, for the joy you have given us all over the last two weeks.

Jump To Comments
  • sarrible

    Ashleigh Johnson is a great athlete but not the first woman of color on the US women’s water polo team—the gold medal–winning 2012 London team featured five-time Olympian Brenda Villa and goalkeeper Tumua Anae.