The best part of the Rio Olympics last summer was watching strong, determined women perform incredible feats of athleticism. I can’t even imagine the Olympics without women’s sports, but the first Olympic games were all male. It wasn’t until the 1900 Olympics in Paris that women were allowed to compete. Legendary British tennis player Charlotte Cooper was one of 22 women to compete that year. Cooper was born September 22, 1870 in Ealing, Middlesex, England. She learned to play tennis at the Ealing Lawn Tennis Club, where she was coached by several Wimbledon champions. She won her first tennis championship, the Ealing Club Championship, when she was fourteen.
Cooper played an aggressive game and was known for her offensive playing style. She attacked the net every opportunity she got, a rare strategy for female players at the time. She was an excellent volleyer, and was one of only a few women to employ an overhand serve. In addition to her formidable physical game, she was known for her consistent, steady temperament on the court. At the time, Victorian societal norms dictated that the game of women’s tennis be played in constricting, ankle-length dresses, but that didn’t seem to hinder Cooper’s game much. Between 1893 and 1917, she participated in 21 Wimbledon tournaments, winning her first title in 1895. She won her last of five Wimbledon titles in 1908 at the age of 37, and she participated in 11 singles finals, eight of which were consecutive.
In 1900, the Summer Olympic Games were held in Paris as part of the 1900 World’s Fair. 997 athletes from around the world gathered to participate in 19 different sports, and for the first time, women were among the Olympic competitors. Cooper competed in both women’s singles and mixed doubles. She and her doubles partner, Reginald Doherty, won the First Place Prize (medals weren’t given out until 1904) in mixed doubles. In women’s singles, Cooper dominated in all her matches. On July 11, 1900, she defeated France’s Hélène Prévost to win the women’s singles title, making her the first female Olympic champion in an individual event. Although the 1900 Games did not award medals to winners, the International Olympic Committee later gave Cooper two gold medals retroactively for her two wins at the Paris Games.
Cooper continued to compete in championship events until she was in her fifties. Even after she retired from championship events, the spry Cooper continued to play tennis until the 1950s. She died in 1966 at the age of 96. After her death, her Olympic medals and Wimbledon trophies apparently could not be found, and her son noted that she had been in the habit of “[giving] them away to the gardener.” But even without her medals and trophies, Cooper is still a tennis legend. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2013, and still holds the record for being the oldest winner of a Wimbledon tournament at the age of 37. Her record of competing in eight consecutive Wimbledon singles finals remained unbroken until 1990, when Martina Navratilova competed in her ninth consecutive singles final.