The U.S. has seen several African-American women dominate in the Olympics, from the Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s gold medal performance in the heptathlon during the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona to Dominique Dawes’ dominance in gymnastics during the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
But both Kersee’s and Dawes’ successes came only after Alice Coachman became the first Black woman of any nationality to win an individual gold medal during the 1948 Olympic Games. Coachman captured gold in the high jump event by leaping 1.68 meters (about 5.5 feet).
Along with her leaping skills, Coachman was also known for blazing speed as a sprinter, winning several National Championship running events from 1939 through 1948. Some suggest that Coachman would have won gold medals sprinting in 1940 and 1944, but international competition was restricted during World War II.
According to reports, Coachman, born in rural Georgia, was the middle child of a family of 10 kids and grew up picking cotton to help support her family. She told New York Times columnist and former AFRO sports writer William Rhoden back in 1995 that her father didn’t like for his daughters to play sports and would beat her if he caught her playing basketball or running races.
“Back then there was the sense that women weren’t supposed to be running like that,” said Coachman, who was born in 1923. “My father wanted his girls to be dainty, sitting on the front porch.”
But, according to webcitation.org, Coachman sneaked off to play sports, and because segregation laws restricted her from playing at athletic centers, she would practice her running barefoot on dirt roads near her house.
Her hard work paid off when she was later recruited to Tuskegee Institute; there, she dominated the collegiate ranks in running and jumping. But even with all her success, Coachman always remained humble.
“The people you pass on the ladder will be the same people you’ll be with when the ladder comes down,” Coachman told Rhoden, while also offering advice to those who face obstacles in the way of their dreams. “Listen to that inner voice that won’t take no for an answer. Guts and determination will pull you through.”