Friday, February 7, 2014

She's Going the Distance

Since tonight is the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics, I thought I’d kick-off History Bitches’ Black History Month series with a blog-post on Alice Coachman, the first African-American woman to earn an Olympic gold medal. Considering the overwhelming obstacles black and female athletes were forced to overcome, Alice’s victory was truly remarkable. 

Born November 9, 1923, in Albany, Georgia, Alice Coachman exhibited her proclivity toward and natural aptitude for athletics. Though her parents were reproachful of their young daughter’s predilection for traditionally masculine pursuits, her most formidable barrier was Jim Crow. As a Black-American in the Deep South, she was prohibited from participating in organized sports competitions, and could not practice at community training facilities. Undeterred, Alice ran and jumped barefoot in fields, on dirt roads, and at playgrounds.

While attending Madison High School, Alice joined the track team. Mentored by the boy’s track coach, Harry Lash, her gifts were refined and nurtured. At age 16, she won a scholarship to Alabama’s celebrated Tuskegee Institute. Before the start of her first semester, Alice competed in the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) high jump championship. She broke the high school and college women’s high jump records…barefoot!

In 1936, Jesse Owen became the first African-American man to compete in the modern Olympics. Frustratingly, Alice had to wait until 1948 to run in the footsteps of her pioneering forbearer. During what many postulate was her athletic peak, the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games were canceled because the Allies were busy killin’ Nazis. She consoled herself by winning the AAU’s indoor high jump finals nine years consecutively and the indoor high jump three times. She also won national track and field finals championships in the 50- and 100-meter dashes, 4 × 100-meter relay, and running high jumps. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, she also played guard for Tuskegee’s basketball team and lead them to three back-to-back conference tournaments. Thanks for making us all seem like a horde of talentless, lazy assholes, Alice!

Though she'd previously experienced a back injury, Alice easily made the cut for London’s 1948 Olympics. Her qualifying jump of 5’4” even surpassed the former standing record (5’3 1/4”).  Competing in the Olympic high jump finals, Alice soared 5’6 1/8” on her first attempt. Subsequently, she became the first African-American woman, and that year’s only female competitor, to earn an Olympic gold medal. She was presented her medal by Great Britain’s King George VI, Queen Elizabeth II’s father. The record Alice set at the 1948 games wasn't broken until two Olympics later.

Returning to America, Alice retired from competing in sports, but continued to be dynamic presence in athletics. Coca-Cola recruited her to be a spokeswoman in 1952, making Alice the first African-American to procure a commercial endorsement. Later, she built the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation to foster budding athletes and support Olympic veterans. Alice was honored at the 1996 summer games in Atlanta as one of the 100 greatest Olympians. She presently resides in Tuskegee, Alabama.

This short video from Team USA’s YouTube channel, does a terrific job of putting Alice’s groundbreaking achievement in context, and explaining its yet-reverberating impact on future generations of Black-American and female Olympians:

Source 1, 2, 3

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