Alice Coachman (November 9, 1923 – July 14, 2014), a track and field star, made history at the 1948 Olympic Games in London becoming the first black woman to win an Olympic medal.
Coachman was born and raised in the heart of the segregated south in Albany, Georgia where she was often denied the opportunity to train and compete in organized sports. Instead, she trained on her own, running barefoot in the fields and on dirt roads using old equipment to create hurdles to improve her high jump. After demonstrating her skills on the track at Madison High School, Tuskegee Institute offered 16-year-old Coachman a scholarship to attend its high school in 1939. She competed on and against all-black teams throughout the segregated south.
Over the next several years, Coachman dominated Amateur Athlete Union (AAU) competitions. By 1946, the same year she enrolled at Albany State College, she amassed ten consecutive national titles in the high jump. Coachman also won the 50-meter outdoor title every year from 1943 to 1947 and held a total of 25 national titles.
While at peak athletic form, World War II forced the cancellation of the Olympic Games in both 1940 and 1944.
In 1948, Coachman was finally able to show the world her talent in London as a member of the Olympic team. She leapt to a record-breaking height of 5 feet, 6 1/8 inches in the high jump to become the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal.
Following the Olympic Games, Coachman returned to a segregated south. At an event in her honor, blacks and whites were seated separately. The mayor sat on the stage with her, but would not shake her hand.
Coachman was a pioneer and paved the way for female African-American Olympic track stars like Wilma Rudolph, Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee. “If I had gone to the Games and failed, there wouldn’t be anyone to follow in my footsteps,” she said. “It encouraged the rest of the women to work harder and fight harder.”
Alice Coachman died at the age of 90.
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