In the weeks and months leading up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, I knew these Games were going to be special. For starters, I had been glued to the U.S. Olympic Trials and saw what a fight it was just to make the team. There were 191 returning Olympians, but also a field of fresh faces that could make a huge impact.
But maybe most significant to me was the fact that out of the 555 athletes on Team USA’s Rio Olympic team, a history-making 292 of them were women. That’s the largest number of women to ever compete for any nation in the history of the Games. It’s only the second time our U.S. ladies have outnumbered our men.
That alone was a feat that I found myself telling people about over and over again. And then the Games got started—and that fun fact quickly hit the back burner. Because every day—and often, multiple times a day—there was news of a yet another history-making performance by one of our outstanding female athletes.
Here are 20 of the most inspiring performances by the badass women of Team USA.
1/20 Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
There was so much hype and pressure around this 19-year-old phenom leading up to the Olympics—and she proved why in Rio. The three-time all-around World Champion dominated at her debut Olympics, taking home five medals: gold in the team, individual all-around, vault, and floor competition, and bronze on the beam. She’s the first U.S. woman to win Olympic gold in vault, and joins Mary Lou Retton, Shannon Miller, and Nastia Liukin in a tie for the most medals won by a U.S. female gymnast in a single Olympics.
2/20 Jean Catuffe/Getty Images
While they’re not the first American gymnastics team to win Olympic gold—the Magnificent Seven did it first in ’96 and the Fierce Five did it in 2012—they are the first to win by such a record margin (8.209 points, to be exact). Team veterans Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas also became the only two American women to earn two Olympic team all-around gold medals. And the group’s nine total medals (four gold, two silver, two bronze) beat the record of eight for most medals won by a U.S. women’s gymnastics team, which had previously been shared by the 1984 and 2008 teams. When I asked National Team Coordinator Marta Karolyi what she thought about the performance of her last group of ladies, she smiled and succinctly said, “Mission accomplished.”
3/20 ODD ANDERSEN/Getty Images
As the youngest (yet most dominant) female swimmer on Team USA, Katie's five medals in Rio put her in pretty good company: She's only the second woman to win three individual freestyle events at a single Olympics, the third American woman to win four gold medals at a single Olympics, and she's tied with Janet Evans and Brooke Bennett as the only U.S. women to win back-to-back 800-meter freestyle Olympic golds. Her 800-meter free time of 8:04.79 marks the fifth time she has lowered the world record in that event. And here’s the craziest part: I’m pretty sure we haven’t even seen the best of Katie Ledecky yet.
4/20 Tom Pennington/Getty
On the final night of swimming in Rio, the U.S. women’s 4x100-meter medley relay team of Kathleen Baker, Lilly King, Simone Manuel, and Dana Vollmer made history by securing the 1,000th gold medal for Team USA at the Summer Olympic Games.
5/20 Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
Before she clinched gold with the ladies in the medley relay, this 20-year-old took the top spot in the 100-meter freestyle, becoming the first African-American woman to win an individual Olympic gold medal in swimming. She finished her debut Olympics with four medals, including silver in the 50-meter free and the 4x100-meter free relay.
6/20 Bryn Lennon/Getty
Team USA’s cyclist won her third consecutive gold in the individual road time trial in Rio, making her the first Olympic cyclist—man or woman, from any nation—to win the same event three times. And at 42 years and 364 days, she also became the oldest female Olympic cycling gold medalist.
7/20 David Ramos/Getty Images
For the first time ever, three Americans placed in the top 10 in the women’s Olympic marathon. Shalane Flanagan was the top U.S. finisher, placing sixth with a season best time of 2:25:26. Desiree Linden was seventh, also posting a season best time with her 2:26:08. Amy Cragg finished ninth in a time of 2:28:25.
8/20 ADRIAN DENNIS/Getty
She gave the United States its first-ever gold medal in women's shot put. (She’s only the second American woman to medal in the event: The other, a bronze, was won—wait for this—at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome!) Another point for her in the history book: She and her dad, 1984 shot put silver medalist Mike Carter, are the first father-daughter duo to both medal in the Olympics!
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In her third Olympics, Jenny won bronze in the women's 1,500-meter run and became the first American woman to win a medal in the event.
10/20 Paul Gilham/Getty Images
Coburn scored a bronze in the women's 3,000-meter steeplechase, becoming the first American woman to win a medal in the event—and the first U.S. athlete, male or female, to nab a steeplechase medal since Brian Diemer won bronze at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games.
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Tianna Bartoletta and Brittney Reese went one-two in the women’s long jump, marking the first time the U.S. has won gold and silver in the event at the same Olympic Games.
12/20 Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
No American woman has ever won gold in the 400-meter hurdles. Until a rainy Thursday night in Rio, that is, when this 26-year-old took the title handily in her debut Olympics.
13/20 Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Stars and stripes all around: Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali, and Kristi Castlin swept the podium in the women’s 100-meter hurdles in Rio. Brianna won in 12.48, with Nia second in 12.59, and Kristi right behind in 12.61 to win bronze. This marks not only the first time the U.S. has swept the podium in this event, but the first time the U.S. women have swept any track and field event.
14/20 Cameron Spencer/Getty Images
Her two golds in the women’s 4x100-meter and 4x400-meter relays brought her lifetime tally of gold medals six—the most in track by any woman from any country. Combined with her silver in the women’s 400-meter, this track legend became the most decorated woman in the history of U.S. Track and Field, with nine total medals in her four Olympic Games.
15/20 Tom Pennington/Getty Images
Not only did the fencer become the first American Muslim woman to compete at the Olympics in a hijab, but her dynamic performance in Rio helped her and fellow saber teammates Monica Aksamit, Dagmara Wozniak, and Mariel Zagunis win the bronze medal in the team event.
16/20 Julian Finney/Getty Images
Kayla successfully defended her Olympic gold medal from the London 2012 Olympic Games, winning the women’s judo 78-kilogram division. That makes her the first American to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in judo. Oh, and that 2012 gold of hers? It marked the first time a U.S. judoku, male or female, had won an Olympic championship.
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Talk about an epic win for the underdog: In her first Olympics, 24-year-old Helen became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in women's wrestling when she defeated Japan's Saori Yoshida—the three-time defending Olympic champion who has won 13 world championships.
18/20 Matthias Hangst/Getty Images
After a flat tire and a disappointing 38th place finish at her first Olympics in London, the triathlete was outspoken about her one and only goal: to come back and win gold in Rio. Four years later, she did just that—becoming the first U.S. Olympic champion in the sport.
19/20 ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/Getty Images
They dominated every single game over the course of their two weeks in Rio, finishing with the team’s 49th straight Olympic win and sixth consecutive gold medal. (In the team’s 10 total Olympic appearances, they’ve earned an overall eight gold, one silver, and one bronze. They’ve never NOT been on the podium. Yeah. Damn.)
20/20 Alex Livesey/Getty Images
She was one of my 15 women to watch in Rio, and in one of the final gold-medal matches of the 2016 Olympics, she proved why: The 21-year-old middleweight boxer became the first U.S. Boxer—male or female—to ever win back-to-back gold medals.