The Beijing Olympics start in just three days, and we wanted to give you a look at the thousands of female athletes in competition. But our blog and your brain can only hold so much, so we've picked out a few women who are specially worthy of your attention. Follow the jump for six women to watch in the 2008 Olympics, chosen for prowess, controversy, and/or general awesomeness.
Why You Should Care: commanding record, celebrity status
China might win all eight diving golds this year, and Guo is the jewel in her team's crown. She's also China's highest paid female athlete. At 26, she's won four straight world titles in springboard, and suffered a detached retina from the impact of a dive. And her love life has made her a Chinese tabloid staple. She and diver boyfriend Tang Liang were known as "the diving prince and princess," and she was said to be "pining" when he married someone else. Now she's with "playboy" Kenneth Fok, but one Chinese blogger warns "Guo must be careful not to think about boys too much or she'll crush China's Olympic hopes." Guo sounds like she'd rather the press focused on her diving as well: "Whatever I say," she complains, "reporters don't report it truthfully, so I might as well shut up."
Why You Should Care: relentlessness, candor
Like Conan the Barbarian, Ronda Rousey likes to crush her enemies. She says "it feels sooo good" to see them buckle beneath the strength of her judo moves. According to fellow Olympian Taraje Williams-Murray, Rousey's mental toughness is her biggest asset, and she won a silver medal at the 2007 World Championships, making her the first American woman to medal in judo in 12 years. Her coach believes if she's in good form in Beijing, she can win the gold. Rousey frequently trains with men, but she says, ""I need someone to protect me. [...] You want to be able to say my boyfriend's gonna beat you up. That's such a good threat to tell somebody."
Why You Should Care: potential rivalry, women's wrestling is awesome
"If any one wrestler in this world is unstoppable," says NBC, "it would be Japan's Saori Yoshida." The daughter of a wrestler, Yoshida began training at age 3 and says she has no childhood memories of playing, only wrestling. Her training paid off: the 25-year-old has never lost an Olympics, world championships, or Asian championships. In Beijing, however, she may have to face American Marcie Van Dusen, who beat her in January at the 2008 World Cup. It was the end of an 119-match winning streak for Yoshida, and her first international loss since 1998.
Why You Should Care: terrifying training conditions, enviable family life
Ndereba won silver in Athens, but New York Road Runners president Mary Wittenberg says she's "the queen of the roads" and a good bet to take gold in Beijing. Like most Kenyan athletes, she works for the government; she's a prison administrator, but she gets most of the year off to train. Violence after the Kenyan elections made this training difficult — Ndereba says, "I was so scared, so traumatized. I didn't know what route to take because I didn't know who I would meet or who would do what." Her husband, prison guard Anthony Maina, takes care of their daughter Jane when she travels for competitions. Her former coach, Stephen Mwaniki, sees the couple as role models for Kenyan society. "If people can believe that a woman is as successful as a man, they have started something," he says. "The problem with women, the problem is we men."
Why You Should Care: age controversy, ability to fly through air
One of the world's best at the uneven bars, He is a favorite to win gold in Beijing. She considers her main rival to be American Nastia Liukin, whom she calls "the most dangerous gymnast in the world." Her passport says she's 16, the lower age limit for participation in the Olympics. But some records place her at just 14. Younger gymnasts may have a physical and psychological edge — International Gymnastics Federation official Nellie Kim thinks they "worry less" — and China has fielded underage gymnasts in the past. Still, He's spot on the team is unlikely to be challenged, both because it would be difficult to prove her passport invalid and because of fears of retribution from Chinese judges.
Why You Should Care: body positivity, women's weightlifting is maybe even more awesome than women's wrestling
Cheryl Haworth wants women to love their muscles. At 5'9" and 315 lbs, she says, "It's fun to be strong." She's fast, too, running a 40-yard dash in five seconds. Her strength, speed and legendary confidence helped her win numerous national titles and a bronze medal in Sydney. However, injuries have made her feel "like an old lady" at 25, and Beijing will likely be her last Olympics. When she retires, she says, ""I'd like to experience the real world, get a job. The Olympics is an honorable endeavor, but you get tired of thinking about yourself all the time. I'd like to do something for others."
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With female athletes competing in 136 events this year, we had to leave out a lot of women. An obvious example is 41-year-old swimmer and mom Dara Torres, but there are thousands of others. Got a favorite female Olympian we didn't mention here? Stump for her in the comments!
NBC Beijing 2008 [NBC]