Sunday, July 29, 2012

159: The Self-Empowered Woman: Alice Coachman

Dear Followers,

Now that we've all enjoyed the opening ceremonies of the London Olympics, I thought it would be a good time to introduce you to the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal. She was also the only female American athlete to win gold at the 1948 Games; her sport was the high jump.

Alice Coachman was born in Albany, Georgia, on November 9, 1923. She and her nine siblings grew up at a time when public training facilities were segregated, which meant she had to exercise barefoot on dirt roads and playgrounds. Because of racial discrimination the only way she could practice the high jump was to use rope, rags and sticks in the fields near her home (12: Hard Times). Even as a little girl, she loved to run and jump (2: An Early Sense of Direction).

Coachman's parents were uncomfortable with the idea of their daughter being an athlete, but she was determined (17: Dreaming Your Own Dream). Fortunately, her fifth-grade teacher at Monroe St. Elementary School (Cora Bailey) encouraged her dream, as did her aunt, Carrie Spry (4: Supportive Someone).

By the time she arrived at Madison High School, the boys' track coach, Harry Lash, noticed her talent. In 1939, when she was 16, she received a scholarship to Alabama's Tuskegee Institute. Before classes even began, she competed in the Amateur Athlete Union (AAU) national track and field competition and--while running barefoot--broke both the high school and collegiate high jump records (13: More Than Meets the Eye).

In 1936, Jesse Owens became the first Black man to compete in the modern Olympics, but no females had followed his example because the 1940 and 1944 Olympics were cancelled due to World War II. During this time, Coachman won championships in five different events at the AAU nationals, and was the only African-American to be named to five All-American teams (11: Risk Addiction).

When she competed in the 1948 London Olympics, she crushed all the competition and her record would not be broken until two Olympiads later. She received her gold medal from King George, father of the current Queen Elizabeth (8: Turning No Into Yes).

Coachman was the first African-American female athlete to receive endorsement deals, and after her retirement she created the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to a) support young athletes and b) provide help for Olympic veterans (7: Magnificent Obsession).

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, she was named as one of the 100 greatest-ever Olympic athletes. Now 88 years old, Coachman lives in Atlanta, Georgia.

Looking forward to your comments...

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