From African-American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ iconic raised fists during the medal ceremony in 1968, to Dutch lesbian snowboarder Cheryl Maas thrusting her rainbow mitt into cameras in protest of host country Russia’s anti-LGBT laws in 2014, sports and politics have long been intertwined—and especially so at the Olympics.
With the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang officially in full swing, that tradition continues, with athletes—especially female athletes—from across the globe utilizing their heightened platforms for advocacy.
These women aren’t just fighting for gold, they’re also fighting to break down barriers. Here are just a handful of the female athletes to watch closely both on and off the Olympic field these two weeks.
Elana Meyers Taylor
Defending bobsled world champion. First female athlete to drive a four-man bobsled. First female bobsledder to represent Team USA three times at the Winter Olympics. Elana Meyers Taylor is all these—and more. After winning bronze in 2010 in Vancouver and silver in Sochi in 2014, Meyers Taylor has her eyes set on gold in PyeongChang. Earning a medal isn’t just a personal achievement for her, though. The bobsledder also sees it as a form of empowerment for other women.
“The more and more women become successful, the more and more we are going to break through these barriers,” said Meyers Taylor to Time magazine. “I go out there to try to be the best version of myself. In some of the places we compete, I might be the only presentation people see of a woman of color or I might be the only example they see of a strong, athletic woman.”
As an athlete, Meyers Taylors believes she has to take a stand in political issues. As she told USA Today, “You can’t have athletes stand for positive things and at the same time not appreciate when they speak up for things that other people might see as negative. If you want us to be role models to kids, you need to stand for more than just sports.”
Watch Meyers Taylor in the women’s bobsled competition on Feb. 21.
Kelly Clark has been shaking up the male-dominated world of snowboarding for well over a decade. In 2002, at just 18 years old, she took home gold in the halfpipe at Salt Lake City, making her the youngest American snowboarder to win an Olympic medal. She hasn’t failed to compete at the Olympics since, adding two bronze medals to her collection over the years and scoring no lower than fourth place. At PyeongChang, her fifth Olympic games, Clark, now 34, hopes to earn a spot on the podium once again and become the oldest female from any country to earn a medal in snowboarding. With Clark’s legacy cemented and the world taking female snowboarders more seriously, many of her female teammates and competitors—many almost half her age—look up to Clark as a role model, which she gladly welcomes.
“If your dream only involves you, it’s too small of a dream,” Clark said to The Arizona Republic. “I don’t want to get done with snowboarding and have a good string of competition results, medals, accomplishments. I want to look at a culture that’s better because I was a part of it and when I look at this women’s team, that’s what I see. I see the strongest women’s halfpipe team, and I like to think that I’ve always made it about the snowboarding and pushed myself to what I’m capable of and where I finish these ladies will start.”
Watch Clark in the women’s halfpipe event on Feb. 12.
Speedskaters Maame Biney and Erin Jackson
Team USA is seeing plenty of firsts. At just 18 years old and in her Olympic debut, Maame Biney is the first African-American woman to qualify for the U.S. speedskating team. A short-track star with an infectious smile, her powerful starts in her races have propelled to the top of the charts. “I like to call myself fierce,” Biney told NPR. “Fierce and strong and—just go out there!”
Biney, who moved to the U.S. from Ghana at age 5, sees her success in her sport as opening other doors for other women, especially for women of color.
“I am super honored to be able to be part of this, because I know that us African-American girls and women haven’t been able to be in this situation before,” she explained to HuffPost. “I’m really honored to inspire other women, African-American or any other race, to get out there and do what you can to succeed.”
Team USA also includes Erin Jackson, the first black woman representing the U.S. in long-track speedskating. After graduating with an engineering degree from the University of Florida, in a monumental feat, Jackson qualified for the Olympic team despite picking up speedskating for the first time just four months prior to the trials. And like Biney, Jackson looks to encourage other young women of color to take up the sport.
“You might have a young black girl watching these Winter Olympic sports thinking, ‘Well, there’s not anyone like me out there. I don’t know if there’s a place for me in these sports,’” she said to Time. “But I’m looking forward to being in the Winter Olympics and showing, OK, we do have some representation in these sports.”
Watch Jackson in the 5000-meter speedskating race on Feb. 16. Watch Biney in the women’s 1500-meter race on Feb. 12 and the women’s 500-meter on Feb. 17.
“I want to be able to be who I am, be proud of who I am and be proud of all the work that has gotten me to the Olympics and not have to deal with this kind of a law,” declared Belle Brockhoff, a member of Team Australia in the women’s snowboarding cross race, in 2014. On live national television, Brockhoff came out at the Sochi Olympics as lesbian to protest Russia’s anti-LGBT laws, standing up for herself and others who felt marginalized by the host country’s discrimination.
Brockhoff returns to the Olympic games to not only compete again in PyeongChang in the snowboarding cross race, but to advocate for herself and others in the LGBT community once again. As she told Mic, she doesn’t believe that Olympians should remain apolitical.
“We have this unique opportunity as athletes to inspire others from a world stage, especially at the Olympics, where we don’t just represent ourselves but our country, our family, friends and people we don’t even know,” Brockhoff said. “Whilst being on the world stage, I believe it’s important to inspire people to be their best and create awareness around certain topics.”
Watch Brockhoff in the women’s snowboarding cross race on Feb. 16.
The Women of Team Nigeria
Seun Adigun, Akuoma Omeoga and Ngozi Onwumere haven’t even competed yet, but they have already made history. They not only represent Nigeria’s first ever bobsled team, but they also represent the first ever African nation to participate in the event. To top it off, this isn’t even the first Olympics for Adigun—she raced in the 100-meter hurdles at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Beyond their hopes of winning though, the female athletes recognize the importance of their presence at the games.
“There is no reason why people should feel like there’s only one lane they need to stay in,” Adigun said to Time. “Diversity explains to people that there are no limits in this life.”
Also representing Team Nigeria is Simidele Adeagbo, the first Nigerian—as well as African and black—female athlete to compete in skeleton. Like her fellow Nigerian teammates, she is outspoken about her participation at the Olympics.
“This is about breaking barriers in winter sports,” she said in an interview with Nike. “It’s about making history. And leaving a legacy. It’s about moving sport forward. That’s so much bigger than just me being an Olympian.”
Watch Adeagbo in the skeleton competition on Feb. 16, and the trio in the women’s bobsled competition on Feb. 21.