Alice Coachman paved the way for hundreds of black female Olympic champions. She became the first African American woman to win a gold medal with a victory in the high jump in the 1948 Olympics in London. Breaking the previous world record in the high jump, Coachman's success challenged long-held assumptions about women's ability to participate in track and field, and opened the doors for generations to follow.
Born in Albany, Georgia, in 1923, Coachman was the fifth of 10 children. Denied access to public training facilities because of segregation, she ran barefoot on the back roads of Georgia, devising various makeshift barriers to jump over.
In a region where, until the second half of the century, children of color were not required to attend school and few towns had high schools for them, Coachman had the opportunity to excel. In 1939, at the age of 16, she received at scholarship to attend Tuskegee Preparatory School. Before classes began, she competed in the women's track-and-field national championship. She broke the high school and collegiate high jump records without wearing shoes. Also at Tuskegee, she ran on the national champion 4x100-meter relay team in 1941 and 1942.
In 1943, Coachman won the AAU nationals in the running high jump and the 50-yard dash. Because the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games were cancelled due to World War II, she was unable to compete at the peak of her athletic ability.
After receiving a trade degree from Tuskegee University in 1946, she enrolled in Albany State University. In 1948, the XIV Olympiad was held in London, England. Coachman qualified for the 1948 Olympic team with a 5 feet, 4 inch jump, which broke the record of 5 feet, 3-1/4 inches set in 1932. Despite a back problem at the London Olympics, she jumped 5 feet, 6-1/4 inches on her first try, a record-breaking jump for which she earned the gold medal. Alice Coachman became the first woman of color in the world, and the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in track and field in the history of the modern Olympics. In addition, she was the only American woman to win a gold medal at the 1948 games. Her record was not broken until two Olympiads later.
After her Olympic victory, Coachman returned to America to train other women athletes. She has been honored with memberships in eight halls of fame, including the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, and the Albany Sports Hall of Fame.
In 1952, Coachman became the first black female athletic champion to sign a product endorsement for a multinational corporation, Coca-Cola.
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