In London in 1948, Alice Coachman became the first African American to win a gold medal, when she won the high jump competition.
She was also the only female American athlete to win a medal of any kind at these Olympics.
A fine sprinter as well as a superb high jumper, there’s little doubt she would have won more medals had the 1940 and 1944 games taken place. During the war years no international competitions had taken place, but Alice held the national US championship from 1939 to 1948.
Alice was born in1923 in Albany. One of ten children, things were not easy for her as a youngster. In the Southern States schools young colored athletes could not use any of the training facilities, or compete in any of the organised sports events due to the strict segregation that was enforced at the time.
Alice struggled to develop her athletics skills, as there was still opposition to women in sport at the time, never mind African American women like Alice. She had to make do with training anywhere she could. She would run barefoot in fields and dirt roads close to her home, to practise her sprinting. She would improvise with homemade equipment to practice the high jump. She would jump over tied rags, ropes and sticks for hours at a time to improving her jumping.
During this time, her parents tried to talk her into doing other more ladylike activities, but Alice was determined that she was going to become an athlete. She was encouraged in pursuing a career in athletics by her Aunt, who stood up for her niece and helped her overcome parental opposition to fulfil her dream.
When she was 16 Alice was granted a scholarship to attend Tuskegee Preparatory School. In the same year of 1939 just prior to her going off to college, she entered the Women’s National Championships and broke both the collegiate and National high jump records. This was a remarkable achievement, made even more so by the fact that Alice Coachman had done it barefoot. While attending Tuskegee Alice also ran in the 4x100m relay team who were champions in 1941 and 1942.
She also won the AAU Nationals the next year 1943, when she won both the 50yard dash and the high jump competitions. Alice was also a member of the very successful Tuskegee Women’s basketball team who won three national titles. She was to go on and win the50 yard dash title a further four times. In1946 she left Tuskegee and enrolled at Albany State College. In total Alice held 25 national titles. This would be an incredible achievement for any athlete, but it is even more incredible, given the inequality of the segregation she suffered.
In 1948 Alice qualified for the US Olympic team with a high jump of 5 feet 4 inches. This leap broke the existing16 year old record by ¾ inch. Alice at last was on her way to compete at an Olympics. At The Olympics in London Coachman had been suffering from a back problem. It did not seem to trouble her too much though, as on her first jump she produced a record breaking leap of 5 feet 6 1/8 inches.
This first jump was enough to earn her the Gold medal, with British jumper Dorothy Tyler taking the Silver medal. The winning Jump of Alice Coachman was to stand as a record until 1956 in Melbourne.
On her return to the US, Coachman was acclaimed as a returning hero. A victory parade was held in her honor, as well as being guest of honor at a banquet held by her sorority. At the age of twenty-five and still in great physical shape, Alice took the decision-a huge surprise to many-to quit athletics. She did however continue coaching many women athletes.
Her own story and career were an inspiration to many, and there’s no doubt her success inspired many young women to try and follow in her footsteps. She later founded the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation. Alice set up this non-profit Foundation to help give young athletes assistance in their career and also to help athletes returning from the Olympics, adjust to life after the games.
Few women athletes have ruled their sport in such a way as Alice dominated the high jump. As well as winning Olympic Gold, she was named to five all-American teams. She has also been inducted into eight different Halls of Fame. She was also honoured at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when she was named as one of the 100 greatest ever Olympic athletes..