First African-American Female Gold Medalist: Alice Coachman
As the 2012 London Olympic Games come to a close, Feminspire has one final champion to pay tribute to in our ongoing series honoring the female Olympians of the past.
Gabby Douglas made headlines in the last week for being the first African American gymnast in Olympic history to become the individual all-around champion, and the first American gymnast to win gold in both the individual all-around and team competitions at the same Olympics. As monumental as Douglas’ win is, she would not have made it so far if it weren’t for Alice Coachman.
Born on November 9, 1923 in Albany, Georgia, Coachman is the first African American woman to ever win an Olympic gold medal when she won the high jump competition in the 1948 Summer Games. Raised in the segregated South, athletes of color were not allowed to use training equipment or compete in organized sporting events with white people. Coachman struggled getting the proper training as a young child, especially as one of ten children. Coachman managed to improvise with home-made training equipment such as using tied rags or broken broomsticks to jump over.
Luckily, scouts soon realized her talent while Coachman was with the Madison High School track team in 1938 and by age 16 she earned a scholarship to attend Tuskegee Preparatory School. While at Tuskegee Preparatory school, and beyond during her days at Albany State College, Coachman broke many high school and collegiate records.
Unfortunately, the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games were cancelled due to World War II and Coachman was unable to compete during her prime. She finally received her chance in the 1948 London Games, although she was 25 and suffered from back pain.
In the summer of 1948, Coachman not only became the first African American woman to become a gold medalist, but she also set an Olympic record on the high jump with a leap of 5 feet, 6 1/8 inches on her first try. This record-breaking jump wasn’t beat until the 1956 Melbourne Games.
Coachman returned to the States as a hero. There was a victory parade held in her honor as well as a banquet held by her sorority. A few months later, while still in top physical shape, Coachman made the decision to quit athletics.
She continued her formal education and earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics at Albany State College in 1949 and had two children, Richmond and Evelyn, who both followed their mother’s well-established footsteps in athletics. Coachman didn’t stray too far from sports however. She became an elementary and high school physical education instructor and a coach for women’s track in Georgia. In 1952, Coachman achieved another great first when she signed a product endorsement deal with the Coca-Cola Company and became the first black female athlete to participate in such a partnership.
Coachman continued to achieve numerous titles though she was no longer a professional athlete. In 1975, and was inducted in to the National Track and Field Hall of Fames as well as several other hall of fames, including Black Athletes and Women’s Sport. In 1994 she established the Alice Coachman Track and Field foundation, a nonprofit organization. She continued to be remembered after her athletic career–during the 1996 Olympic Games, she was honored as one of the 100 greatest athletes in Olympic history.
The greatness of Alice Coachman lives on in the Olympic Games, as seen in the strength and determination of young black female athletes today.
Written by Alicia Perez