In 1996, Sheryl Swoopes became the first woman to join the WNBA. That same year she inspired the first legitimate women’s basketball sneaker, the Nike Air Swoopes, which revolutionized the game for women. At the time, because basketball shoes were made for and marketed toward men, women’s shoes were extremely hard to find. Female basketball players often wore smaller-sized men’s sneakers instead.
Nike sent lead shoe designer Marni Gerber to Swoopes’s hometown in Brownfield, Texas, where she spent time with Swoopes and her friends and family. Gerber designed the Air Swoopes for strong, athletic women like her, and Swoopes would go on to win three Olympic Gold medals.
Her story is one of many spotlighted in Molly Schoit’s new book Game Changers: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History, which features iconic and lesser-known female athletes who paved the way for women in sports. The tome includes rarely seen photographs of athletes like Jackie Towanda, who became the first woman to box in Madison Square Garden, and Renée Richards, the first transgender woman to play in a professional tennis tournament. Click ahead to see tennis player Lorraine Williams, bullfighter Conchita Cintron, and Olympic skier Penny Pitou.
Game Changer’s: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History, is published by Simon & Schuster and available now.