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Six Badass Women You've Probably Never Heard Of

By Matt Alesevich | 02. September 2014


Tough Mudder is no stranger to badassery, and last week, we took the time to honor some real-life badass dudes you probably never heard of. Now that the men have had their moment, it’s time to introduce you to some ladies who prove that badassery truly knows no gender.

Next time someone tries to play that old-fashioned, insecurity-ridden women-just-aren’t-as-tough-as-men card, send them here.

Juliane Koepcke - Lima, Peru

On Christmas Eve 1971, LANSA Flight 508 bound for Iquitos, Peru from Lima was struck by lightning, causing it to crash into the Amazon rainforest. Of the flight’s 92 passengers and crew members aboard, one survived the 2-mile free fall-- 17-year-old German Peruvian, Juliane Koepcke.

Left with a concussion, broken collarbone, deep cuts throughout her body and a swollen eye, Juliane navigated the absurdity of the rainforest terrain for 10 days using survival skills taught to her by her zoologist parents, including pouring gasoline on her open wounds to rid her gashes of worms. On day nine, she found a stream-side shelter with a boat and awaited rescue, later noting, “I didn’t want to take the boat because I didn’t want to steal it.”

Jerri Nielsen - Salem, Ohio

Seeking an adventurous change of pace, Ohio ER doctor Jerri Nielsen accepted a year-long gig as the sole medical professional at a 40-person research station in Antarctica. In March 1999, during a months-long period when no planes can land due to harsh weather, Nielsen discovered a lump on her breast. The mass kept growing and, finally in June, she knew she had to take action. Using ice and a local anesthetic, Jerri performed her own biopsy and later self-administered chemotherapy for her breast cancer.

She trained her colleagues on how to care for her condition, and in October 1999, the New York Air National Guard conducted a dangerous yet successful evacuation mission. Back on U.S. soil, Nielsen went into remission and spent the next decade traveling the world as a motivational speaker recounting her “miracle on ice” tale. She died in 2009, 11 years after her initial diagnosis.  

Jackie Mitchell - Chattanooga, Tennessee

Daughter to a baseball-loving father and neighbor to eventual Hall of Fame pitcher Dazzy Vance, Jackie Mitchell was taught the mechanics of baseball not long after her first steps. At 17, she stared for a local women’s team before being given a chance to play for the Chattanooga Lookouts, a minor league team currently associated with the LA Dodgers. On April 2, 1931, the star-studded New York Yankees traveled to Chattanooga for a preseason exhibition game versus the Lookouts. After an embarrassing first inning start by Chattanooga’s starting pitcher, Mitchell was brought in to face the legendary Babe Ruth.

In four pitches, she struck him out. Next up was eventual 7-time all-star and 6-time world champion, Lou Gehrig. He swung and missed at Mitchell’s first three pitches. In just seven pitches, 17-year-old Jackie Mitchell struck out two of baseball’s most worshiped heroes-- back to back. Mitchell’s momentum was short lived, however, as days later, the commissioner of baseball voided her contract, deeming women unfit to play the “strenuous” game of baseball. She never faced another Yankee.

Antoinette Tuff - Decatur, Georgia

When a 20-year-old man entered an elementary school in DeKalb County, Georgia dressed in all black and armed with an AK-47 on August 20, 2013, he encountered a form of ‘Tuff love’ he never could have seen coming. Firing warning shots at the ground of the school’s front office, the gunman came face to face with Antoinette Tuff, the school’s 46-year-old bookkeeper. As the lone adult between the gunman and 800 students, Tuff stayed, literally, cool under the gun, as she talked down the gunman using compassionate anecdotes from her own life.

In a hair raising, half-hour 911 call, Tuff can be heard telling the gunman about how she was once suicidal, but has since recovered and started a new life. “It’s going to be all right, sweetie,” she calmly says to the gunman before his surrender. “That’s a good thing you’re giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.” Despite shots being fired, no one was harmed in the encounter.

Diana Nyad - New York, NY

All and all it took just over two days, 53 hours in total, but Diana Nyad’s feat was 35 years in the making. After four failed attempts plagued by unfavorable winds, vicious sharks, venomous jellyfish and one prolonged asthma attack, the 65-year-old endurance swimmer achieved her lifelong goal of becoming the first person to swim from Cuba to Florida, a 110-mile passage stretching from Havana to Key West, without the use of a shark cage.

Learning and adjusting her approach over the course of several attempts, Nyad, accompanied by her support crew of 35, arrived on the shores of Key West on the afternoon of September 2, 2013, swollen, sunburned and dazed from exhaustion. Barely able to speak after making it ashore, Nyad said, “I got three messages. One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team.”

Devon Musko - North Olmstead, Ohio

Just two years ago, Devon Musko was overweight, out of shape and in a less-than-healthy relationship. Then on October 20, 2012, she ran her first Tough Mudder. While she admits needing seven hours to finish the course and failing nearly every Tough Mudder Kentucky obstacle, Musko described the experience as “mud at first sight,” and used the event as a litmus test for just how much she needed to change her unhealthy ways. In the days the followed, Musko signed up for a Tough Mudder season pass and vowed to use Tough Mudder to turn herself “from a fatass to a badass.”

This October 12, nearly two years after her first Tough Mudder, Musko is scheduled to become the first women in history to reach 50 Tough Mudder finishes when she crosses the Tough Mudder Tri-State finish line. She will also contend in her second 24-hour World’s Toughest Mudder endurance race this November. [Read a full 2013 interview with Devon Musko.]

While you don’t need to be in a life-or-death situation to prove your toughness, any of these women will tell you that the road to badassery is paved with comfort-zone crushing intentions. So instead of training for years like Diana Nyad only to find out you can’t get into Cuba, go the Devon Musko route and challenge yourself to run a Tough Mudder obstacle course near you.

And, oh yeah: next time someone tells you you throw like a girl, think of Jackie MItchell, and politely say thank you.