Alice Coachman, the first African-American woman to win Olympic gold, has died. She was 90. The Albany, Ga. native made her historic mark at the 1948 London Olympics in the high jump category. Coachman was the only American woman to win a gold medal at the London games.
Coachman was born November 9, 1923, the fifth of 10 children. Growing up in the deep South, segregation and racism was Coachman’s reality, so she often had to run barefoot on dirt roads. When she entered Madison High School, she worked out with the boy’s track coach. Her athletic ability paid off and at age 16, Coachman began attending Tuskegee University That year, she also won a reported 10 straight national track titles according to USA Track and Field.
Because of World War II, Coachman did not compete in the 1940 and 1944 Olympic games. In an Associated Press interview in 1996, Coachman said she was at her peak then and thinks she could have won two gold medals 50 and 200-yard dash events.
“In 1944, I was really ready,” Coachman said then to the AP.
“I had won the 50-yard dash in the national AAU six consecutive years and the 200 two years straight. I was right at my peak in 1944. I could have won at least two gold medals there.” Coachman was able to find glory at the London Olympic games, making her way to the country by boat. She won the high jump event, which her nearest competitor matched but only on her second attempt.
The win brought Coachman notoriety in some respects but widespread fame was still elusive. In the same AP interview, Coachman revealed that many who encountered her later in life didn’t believe she was the first Black woman to win the gold. Many gave that honor to the great track star Wilma Rudolph, who won in 1960.
Coachman became the first Black athlete to endorse an international product, working with beverage company Coco-Cola. She said she was paid $500, a hefty sum for the times but small in comparison to what Black stars command today. She founded the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to support young athletes and was also recognized at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta as one of the 100 greatest Olympians in history.
In 2004, the National Track & Field Hall of Fame and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame inducted Coachman into their ranks.