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Girls on Film: 11 female athletes who deserve their own sports biopic
Hollywood's obsession with real-life sports stories rarely extends to women — but it should
 
Some of Jackie Joyner-Kersee's records are still unmatched.
Some of Jackie Joyner-Kersee's records are still unmatched. Tony Duffy/Getty Images

The best sports films are about so much more than sports. Done well, a sports film has a magnetic power that transcends any single event and becomes a universally relatable drama, enabling both hardcore fans, everyday moviegoers, and sports junkies to get swept away together. It might be one small man's dream to play college football (Rudy), the shame of a scandal (Eight Men Out), an underdog horse (Seabiscuit), or a young baseball player squaring off against the racism of his time (today's new release, 42) — but on the big screen, these stories are something that anyone can connect with.

But the sports genre is almost entirely (and unfairly) the domain of men. Few sports movies get made about athletic women, and when they do, they're fictional tales, like Gurinder Chadha's Bend It Like Beckham (soccer) or Drew Barrymore's Whip It (roller derby). As far as Hollywood is concerned, there aren't many real female athletes; it's been more than 20 years since A League of Their Own hit theaters, and 2011's Soul Surfer was more concerned with Bethany Hamilton's faith than the athleticism of a young woman who returned to surfing even after losing her arm to a shark.

There are countless fierce, talented, fascinating, and inspirational women in sports history — Sports Illustrated for Women named 100 not so long ago — whose experiences could be adapted into riveting films. These women have stories that are ripe for the telling; they've set world records, won piles of Olympic medals, beaten down debilitating afflictions — one even became a spy. So listen up, Hollywood: Here are 11 female athletes worthy of their own sports biopics (and since these are a mere fraction of the stories worth telling, feel free to add your picks in the comments):

1. BABE DIDRIKSON ZAHARIAS (1911-1956), Athlete of the 20th Century 

Sports accomplishments: Zaharias' specialties included track and field (multiple AAU wins and Olympic gold medals), basketball (All-American three years), and golf (multiple wins and firsts, including first woman to qualify for the Los Angeles Open). She also traveled with a baseball team, played competitive billiards, and competed in sports like tennis, diving, and bowling.

Why she deserves a biopic: As women struggled for equal rights, Babe's goal was to be "the greatest athlete who ever lived." Her versatility makes her the perfect big-screen biopic subject; she tackled every sport she was allowed to play, and was so good at so many of them that one can only imagine what she would've accomplished today without so many institutional barriers to female athletes. She was, in ESPN's words, "flamboyant and cocky," and her arrogance fueled her to do more in her 45 years than most people do with twice the lifespan. Even cancer, which eventually took her life, failed to break her competitive spirit: A year after a colostomy and two years before her death, she won the U.S. Women's Open by 12 strokes.

2. SHIRLEY MULDOWNEY (1940-present), The First Lady of Drag Racing

Sports accomplishments: First female member of the Auto Racing All-American team, multiple NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) winner, first person to win NHRA Winston three times, one of the Top 25 Drivers of All Time.

Why she deserves a biopic: To be fair, "Cha Cha" Muldowney already has a biopic: 1983's Bonnie Bedelia-starring Heart Like a Wheel. But that was made almost two decades before the end of her career, and before her death-defying crash in 1984, in which Muldowney's dragster rolled 600 feet, leaving her with broken legs, pelvis, hands, and fingers. Only two years later she was racing again (here's a detailed story about her recovery and return), continuing until her retirement at age 63 in 2003. The remarkable story of Muldowney's career deserves to be told in full.

3. JACKIE JOYNER-KERSEE (1962-present), Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century

Sports accomplishments: Starting her career as a UCLA starting forward in basketball, Joyner-Kersee became a heptathlete, participating in four Olympics, winning six medals, and breaking multiple world records — some of which are still standing.

Why she deserves a biopic: She's a champion who rose from adversity in socially tumultuous times to become an iconic champion whose name is easily recognized. Her early years were steeped in death and struggle in East St. Louis, but excelling in sports and academics, she worked her way to UCLA, became a record-breaking Olympian, managed to avoid the many drug scandals that plagued runners during the 1980s, and became an inspiration to future female athletes like Mia Hamm and Marion Jones.

4. GERTRUDE EDERLE (1905-2003), First Woman to Swim the English Channel

Sports accomplishments: Ederle was the first woman to swim the English Channel, and the sixth person in history — and she beat the records of the men who came before her.

Why she deserves a biopic: Her accomplishments may not have been as far-reaching as some other women on this list, but Derle rose to fame in 1920s Manhattan — a time and place in which women had to fight for the right to remove their stockings when swimming, lest their bare legs tantalize audiences. She began her career at a tiny indoor pool, working up to an Olympics (alongside fellow swimmer and future Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller), and swam 35 miles of icy water in 14.5 hours a decade later. Her rise was fast and inspiring, and it earned her the nickname "America's Best Girl" from President Calvin Coolidge.

5. BILLIE JEAN KING (1943-present), Winner of the Battle of the Sexes

Sports accomplishments: 6 Wimbledon singles championships, 4 U.S. Open titles, winner of first WTA Tour Championship, winner of Battle of the Sexes, founder of multiple tennis associations, first woman and first tennis player to be named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.

Why she deserves a biopic: Billie Jean King's activism had an impact on society that matched her athletic achievements. King fought for equal prize money for male and female tennis winners, tirelessly promoted the first professional women's tennis tour, became the first president of the Women's Tennis Association, and founded a women's sports magazine. She was outed during divorce proceedings in 1981, becoming the first professional female athlete known to be gay. And of course, she demolished male tennis player Bobby Riggs, the self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig in the "Battle of the Sexes" match, showcasing the power of female athleticism.

6. WILMA RUDOLPH (1940-1994), Fastest Woman in the World

Sports accomplishments: A basketball-star-turned-record-breaking-runner, Rudolph was the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at the Olympics, and a James E. Sullivan Award winner.

Why she deserves a biopic: Rudolph rose to fame in the first internationally televised Olympics, helping to raise the profile of track and field, but her fight to get there is even more impressive, and not just due to race or gender. Rudolph was born prematurely, weighing less than five pounds, and suffered multiple afflictions in her childhood including scarlet fever and polio, the latter which left her in metal leg braces. By age 12 she'd gotten rid of the braces; by 16, she'd earned an Olympic bronze medal. Like many other female athletes, her achievements have only been feted on the small screen, with a '70s TV movie, though her story could run laps around guys like Rudy.

7. ALICE MARBLE (1913-1990), Wimbledon Champion and Spy

Sports Accomplishments: Multiple Wimbledon and U.S. Open champion, Associated Press Athlete of the Year.

Why she deserves a biopic: When World War II broke out and attention shifted away from tennis, Marble turned to comic books. She was sought out during Wonder Woman's promotional push and earned credit as an associate editor, before deciding to create another comic series, Wonder Women, showcasing important women in history. Soon after, Marble suffered multiple tragedies. Two days after she suffered a post-car accident miscarriage, her husband was killed in action during the war, leading her to attempt suicide. She recovered, only to become a spy. According to this profile, she was asked to spy on former lover Hans Steinmetz, who had stolen artwork for the Nazis, and lived with him in Switzerland playing "the part of the devoted lover." But her American contact was a double agent who eventually shot her in the back. She recovered to live a less tumultuous life, playing tennis, teaching, and lending vocal public support to ending racial segregation in tennis and allowing Althea Gibson to compete in the U.S. Championships.

8. JULIE KRONE (1963-present), Winningest Female Jockey of All Time

Sports Accomplishments: With 3,456 wins over 18 years, Krone was the first woman to compete in the Breeders' Cup, and the only female jockey to win a Triple Crown race.

Why she deserves a biopic: Thoroughbred racing has provided some of the most exhilarating sports films, and Krone offers the double perk of racing and being a heroine in the "sport of kings." Unlike her fellow list-mates, however, Krone might actually be bound for the big screen: A feature called The Boys Club is currently in the early stages of development, based on her autobiography.

9. NADIA COMANECI (1961-present), Gymnast of the First Perfect 10

Sports Accomplishments: Comaneci earned nine Olympic medals (five gold), scored the first perfect 10 in modern Olympic history (and followed it up with six more), and earned more than 15 gold medals at other championships and events.

Why she deserves a biopic: Comaneci's Olympics success is awe-inspiring, and it's matched with the beloved sports genre trope of a coaching father figure, as she was the first success story of famed gymnastics coach Bela Karolyi (with wife Marta). Their relationship saw highs and lows; Comaneci scored multiple perfect 10s under Karolyi's guidance and struggled when she was temporarily separated from him. She was the only person he trusted with news that he was defecting to the United States during a tour, and though she refused to follow suit, she was put under lock and key after — unable to travel outside Romania — and subjected to a life that "took on a new bleakness." Comaneci suffered under Ceausescu's communist reign, but was able to finally defect herself some eight years later, before the Romanian Revolution of 1989. She too had a made-for-TV biopic in the '80s, but her story has yet to be told on the big screen.

10 and 11. HELENE MAYER (1910-1953) & SONJA HENIE (1912-1969), Athletes During the Rise of the Nazi Party

Sports Accomplishments: German Helene Mayer earned six German fencing championships by age 20 and medaled in two Olympics; Norwegian Sonja Henie won gold in three Olympics and 10 consecutive World Figure Skating Championships.

Why she deserves a biopic: Mayer and Henie were two athletes from different sports and different countries, but they shared one thing in common: They courted controversy during the German-hosted Winter and Summer Olympic Games of 1936. Mayer was a half-Jewish fencer and victim of the Nazi removal of Jewish athletes from the country's sports programs. The move invoked Olympic boycott threats, inciting Germany to bring Mayer back to the fold to give the appearance of inclusiveness. Fearing for her family, and eager to be accepted back into German society, Mayer wore a swastika and gave the Nazi salute during her silver medal ceremony. But it wasn't only Germans struggling with their place in the Reich. Norwegian Henie had a personal relationship with Hitler. An image of Henie shaking Hitler's hand circulated, infuriating fellow Norwegians, but it proved invaluable during the Nazi occupation of Norway: The photograph kept her family's property safe from invading troops while she was in the U.S.  supporting the USO war effort. (She had started a new life as a Hollywood actress.) Together, the athletes provide a powerful new entry point into an era that Hollywood loves to revisit.

Girls on Film is a weekly column focusing on women and cinema. It can be found at TheWeek.com every Friday morning. And be sure to follow the Girls on Film Twitter feed for additional femme-con.

 
Monika Bartyzel is a freelance writer and creator of Girls on Film, a weekly look at femme-centric film news and concerns, now appearing at TheWeek.com. Her work has been published on sites including The Atlantic, Movies.com, Moviefone, Collider, and the now-defunct Cinematical, where she was a lead writer and assignment editor.

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