February 2014 brings us the Olympics in Sochi and Black History Month. That leads us to remember and honor African-American women athletes through history who have won Olympic medals (summer and winter) and brought them home to the U.S.
Growing up in the South in the 1920s and 1930s, Alice Coachman was discouraged from participation in athletics due to both her gender and her race. However, she followed her passion. Encouraged by the boy's track coach at her high school, she then enrolled at Tuskegee Institute's high school program. She proceeded to win many championships and was named to five All-American teams (the only African-American on each one). She would have competed in the Olympics in 1944 (while she was in college), but World War II forced the cancellation of those Olympics. In 1948 at the London Olympics, Coachman won the high jump with a record of 5 feet 6 1/8 inches and became the first black woman to win an Olympic Gold Medal. It was presented to her by King George VI. After the Olympics, she was the first African-American woman who benefited from endorsements. Her Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation assists young athletes with the adjustments to life required after competing in the Olympics.
Coachman faced and overcame many challenges and so did Wilma Rudolph. The twentieth of 22 children, Wilma Rudolph was born prematurely and was often sick. When she was stricken with polio, Rudolph's parents were told that she would be unable to walk. They sought a second opinion and, after two years of intense physical therapy, she could walk. By age 12, she no longer had to wear or rely on any corrective devices. After having been home schooled due to her health problems, Rudolph entered public high school and discovered her running abilities there. At age 16, she won a bronze medal as a member of the relay team at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. In the 1960 Olympics, in Rome, Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics Games -- 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, and the 4x100 relay (which she anchored). Because the 1960 Olympics were televised (the first Olympics to receive that treatment), she became famous, particularly with her inspirational story. Rudolph has been inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame.
Powerhouse athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee set many records and has many Olympic accomplishments including three gold medals, a silver medal and two bronze medals. The most decorated woman athlete in the history of Olympic track and field events, Joyner-Kersee's gold medal in the long jump was the first one won by an American. In the Heptathlon, she was the first woman to score more than 7,000 points. She won Olympic Gold Medals in that event in both 1988 and 1992. She also medaled at the 1984 and 1996 Olympics. After her retirement, Joyner-Kersee founded the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Youth Center Foundation through which she encourages young people to participate in sports.
In 1988 in Seoul, South Korea, Jackie Joyner-Kersee's sister-in-law, Florence Griffith Joyner, set a world record in the 200-meter sprint at the Olympics and won a gold medal. She won two additional gold medals at that Olympics as well as a silver medal in the 4x100 relay. She had previously won silver in the 1984 Olympics. "FloJo", as she was called, began racing when she was 7 years old and was known for her colorful clothing and her fingernails. After the Olympics, she co-chaired the President's Council on Physical Fitness, worked with disadvantaged children, and designed athletic uniforms.
Coachman, Rudolph, Joyner-Kersee and Griffith Joyner all medaled in the Summer Olympics. Figure skater Debi Thomas achieved her firsts in the Winter Olympics. Thomas, who began figure skating when she was 5 years old, won a bronze medal at the 1988 Olympic Games while she was a student at Stanford studying engineering. She was the first black woman to win a figure skating medal (from any country and in any sport). After she retired from skating, Thomas studied medicine. Today, as an orthopedic surgeon, she specializes in knee and hip replacements.
We salute these women who demonstrated their passion, determination, and persistence in the quest for Olympic gold. All of these amazing athletes are featured in the book Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America. We are proud to stand on their shoulders.
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