Alice Coachman, First African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal

[b. 1923]

Few athletes have dominated a sport as thoroughly as Alice Coachman dominated the high jump. Named to five All-American teams, she won a gold medal in the 1948 Olympics, becoming the first African American woman to do so. She has been inducted into eight halls of fame.

Born in Albany, the fifth of Fred and Evelyn Coachman’s ten children, Coachman grew up in the segregated South. Barred from public sports facilities because of her race, Coachman used whatever materials she could piece together to practice jumping. Coping with a society that discouraged women from being involved in sports, Coachman struggled to develop as an athlete.

Coachman received encouragement from her fifth-grade teacher, Cora Bailey, at Monroe Street Elementary School and from her aunt, Carrie Spry, who defended her niece’s interest in sports in the face of parental reservations. In 1938, when Coachman enrolled in Madison High School, she immediately joined the track team. The Madison boys’ track coach, Harry E. Lash, recognized and nurtured her talent. She quickly attracted the attention of the Tuskegee Institute, in Tuskegee, Alabama, where she enrolled in the high school program in 1939. Even before classes started, she competed in and won her first Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national championship in the high jump.

During the early 1940s Coachman collected a host of national titles. As a senior at Tuskegee Institute High School, she won the AAU nationals in the high jump and the 50-meter dash. During her college career at Tuskegee, she won national championships in the 50-meter dash, the 100-meter dash, the 400-meter relay, and the high jump. She also played on the Tuskegee women’s basketball team, which won three championships. She was the only African American on each of the five All-American teams to which she was named. Although she was clearly an athlete of Olympic caliber, World War II (1941-45) forced the cancellation of the games that would have been held during her college career.

Coachman was also successful in the classroom, graduating from Tuskegee in 1946 with a degree in dressmaking. She also received a B.A. in home economics from Albany State College (later Albany State University) in 1949.

When Coachman finally got the chance to compete in the Olympics, in the 1948 London games, she qualified easily despite a back injury. She defeated her closest competitor, the British high jumper Dorothy Tyler, on the first jump of the finals, setting a record of 5 feet 6 1/8 inches. King George VI personally presented the gold medal to her.

Coachman returned to the United States a hero. After her Olympic victory she retired from athletics, even though she was only twenty-five and in excellent physical condition.

She became the first African American woman to benefit from endorsements. She also taught, coached, and became involved in the Job Corps. Always a supporter of athletes, she later formed the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides assistance to young athletes and helps former Olympic athletes adjust to life after the games. During the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta she was honored as one of the 100 greatest Olympic athletes in history.

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