Alice Coachman traveled a long route to become the first black woman ever to win an Olympic gold medal.
Coachman grew up in southwest Georgia during an era of racial segregation, which meant that she rarely had access to athletic facilities, often running on dirt roads (sometimes barefoot) and creating her own hurdles to practice jumping. At a time when female athletes often were frowned on, Coachman’s parents were not supportive of her interest in sports.
“My father wanted me to be more like a young lady, sitting on the porch,” Coachman said.
And even when Coachman achieved success – winning the first of a remarkable 10 consecutive AAU outdoor high jump titles in 1939, at age 15 – she was unable to perform on a national stage: in 1940 and 1944, the Olympic Games were canceled because of World War II.
Still, Coachman persevered. She had attended Tuskegee Institute and Albany State College and made her Olympic debut at the London 1948 Olympic Games, where she set American and Olympic records with a successful first attempt at 5 feet 6 1/8 inches. She was the only American woman to win a gold medal at the London 1948 Olympic Games – presented to her by King George VI — and her success paved the way for other African-American female track stars.
“I made a difference among the blacks, being one of the leaders,” Coachman said. “If I had gone to the Games and failed, there wouldn’t be anyone to follow in my footsteps. It encouraged the rest of the women to work harder and fight harder.”
Coachman retired from competition after the London 1948 Olympic Games. She raised a family and became a teacher. In 1952, Coca-Cola hired her to become a spokesperson.
Coachman passed away in 2014. She was 90.