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Woman Athletes of the Year
December 31, 2007
From across the U.S. and around the globe, they dominated their respective sports and, in many cases, primed themselves for next summer's Beijing Olympics—and immortality
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December 31, 2007

Woman Athletes Of The Year

From across the U.S. and around the globe, they dominated their respective sports and, in many cases, primed themselves for next summer's Beijing Olympics—and immortality

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West Des Moines, Iowa

When she was nine months old, Johnson announced her intentions to be a gymnast by dismounting from her crib. Now, at 15, she is the U.S. and world all-around champion. At the worlds in September, Johnson also took gold in the floor exercise and helped the U.S. to its third team title. The biggest test for the 4'8", 88-pound gymnast, who has yet to lose an all-around competition in the senior division, will come this summer in Beijing. "I am willing to put in 100 times more effort," she said, "and come back with another gold medal."

Justine Henin
Liège, Belgium

At a time when women's tennis has (allegedly) never been deeper, Henin can barely see the rest of the field in a rearview mirror. Her gilded 2007 included the French and U.S. opens, an almost tacky 63--4 match record and a WTA-record $5.43 million in prize money. This was nothing new. Henin, 25, has inhabited the rankings penthouse for most of the past four years. But this was, as her coach Carlos Rodriguez puts it, "a new Justine." In the past Henin has been fueled by conflict, most notably her estrangement from her father and siblings. After separating from her husband, Pierre-Yves Hardenne, last January, Henin reconciled with her family, and the steely intensity was replaced with calm. "It was a great year for me," she says, "and not only because of my tennis."

Meseret Defar
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Tirunesh Dibaba
Arsii, Ethiopia

They do not run, they float, transforming a race into an athletic ballet. Exhausting effort is hidden by an outward calm until a final, breathtaking kick splinters the field. They make the very difficult look very easy. Between them they have five world championships, one Olympic gold medal and three world records, yet Defar is only 24 years old and Dibaba 22.

They are their nation's second generation of female distance runners, following the path hewed in the 1990s by Olympic gold medalists Fatuma Roba and Derartu Tulu and world champions Berhane Adere and Gete Wami. Defar, the 2004 Olympic gold medalist in the 5,000 meters, was unbeaten in 2007, including a sensational world record of 14:16.63 in the 5,000 last June (nearly eight seconds faster than the old mark) and the world championship three months later. Dibaba, who got her first world title in the 5,000 meters as an 18-year-old prodigy in 2003, won the world championship in the 10,000 meters, seven months after breaking the indoor world record in the 5,000. Over the last seven years they've gone head-to-head 22 times, with Defar winning 13 of the races.

However, the two are not close friends: In 2003 Dibaba was poised to earn a $125,000 Golden League jackpot if she won the 5,000-meter race in Berlin. On the day before the race she said of Defar, "She is like a sister to me." Then Defar outkicked her the next night, denying her the money. At the Beijing Olympics next summer it is not only a matter of how many medals these two will win, but of who might deprive the other of gold.

Dois Riachos, Brazil

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