Can you imagine a sports world without the Williams sisters, Jackie Joyner Kersee or Gabby Douglas? It’s pretty difficult to picture, but there once was a time when women weren’t allowed to compete. And there was also a time when black athletes weren’t allowed to be on the same playing field as white people. Fortunately, there were African-American women who ignored the racial slurs and death threats and focused on creating equality in sports. This month, to celebrate Black History Month, we’d like to honor some of the women who have contributed to the soul of sports.
Althea Gibson was a pioneer in both amateur tennis and professional golf. In 1942, Althea entered and won her first tennis tournament. In 1947, Althea won the first of ten straight ATA National Championships. In 1956, she won the French Championships and, in 1957, won the All-England Championships at Wimbledon and U.S. National Tennis Championships at Forest Hills. Althea retired from amateur tennis in 1958 after she had won Wimbledon. In 1964, Gibson launched her golf career, joining the LPGA. She retired in 1971.
Another pioneer, Zina Garrison, became the first black woman to reach a Grand Slam Final (1990). She began playing tennis at the age of ten and held 20 major doubles championships before the end of her career.
Both Gibson and Garrison are sports legends who paved the way for athletes like Venus and Serena Williams. Both sisters turned professional at 14 and have since moved up in the ranks to become two of the top single and doubles players on the circuit. In 2008, Venus won Wimbledon in a match against Serena, sister against sister. Last year, Serena won the Australian Open for a record fifth time and went on to win Wimbledon.
Track & Field
It’s inconceivable to discuss black, female athletes without mentioning Jackie Joyner Kersee, considered by many to be the greatest female athlete ever, who became the first participant to score more than 7,000 points in the heptathlon. In an era where an immediate success gets followed by queries over performance-enhancing drugs, there were never questions surrounding Jackie Joyner-Kersee. As a six-time Olympic gold medalist, Joyner-Kersee has made strides off the track by starting the Jackie Joyner-Kersee Foundation which provides athletic resources to at-risk families in the St. Louis area.
Gail Devers is also an inspiration, winning gold in the 100 meter dash in two consecutive Olympics as is three-time gold medal winner Valerie Brisco. And of course there’s Flo Jo (Florence Griffith Joyner) who set record after record as the World’s Fastest Woman. Following in the footsteps of these great track and field athletes are contemporary runners like Allyson Felix, Carmelita Jeter and Sanya Richards-Ross.
No one paved the way for black female track and field athletes quite like Wilma Rudolph. At a young age, Rudolph faced adversity when she was diagnosed with polio but that didn’t stop her from racking up three gold medals during the 1960 Olympics. Her performance compelled many young female teenagers to take an interest in track and field. A winner and inspiration, the embodiment of an icon.
On the basketball court it’s easy to think about Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. But how about Lisa Leslie, Chamique Holdsclaw, Swin Cash, Cheryl Miller, Sheryl Swoope, Candace Parker or Maya Moore? From Final Four appearances to representing the U.S. at the Olympic Games and playing in the WNBA, these basketball players, and many others, are role models for thousands of girls.
Softball also boasts some great players. Gold Medalist Natasha Whately broke the Olympic record for stolen bases with five in nine games and emerged in 2004 as one of the best players in the world.
It’s easy to see why Dominique Dawes was called “Awesome Dawesome.” Dawes vaulted her way into the record books with a string of awards and titles. She came home with a bronze medal from the 1992 Olympics and two years later became the first gymnast since 1969 to make a clean sweep of everything gold at the U.S. National Gymnastics Championship.
The 2012 London Games introduced the world to Gabby Douglas, the first African-American gymnast in Olympic history to become the individual all-around champion. At just 16 years of age, Douglas was voted AP Female Athlete of the Year and featured on a Corn Flakes box.
Flo Hyman is remembered not only as a great athlete whose life and career were cut tragically short, but also as a woman of great character. At 6 feet 5 inches she played volleyball for the University of Houston and went on to win the silver medal at the 1984 Olympic games. In 1986 Flo collapsed and died during a volleyball match. Later than year, she was posthumously inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Who can forget 2002 when Vonetta Flowers made Olympic history, becoming the first African-American to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics? Her fellow Olympians chose her to carry the U.S.A. flag in the closing ceremonies.
Maritza Correia is part of a new generation of competitive African-American swimmers. In addition to competing at the Beijing Olympics, Correia hopes to provide young minority girls with a swimming role model and bring the sport to inner city communities.
Black, female athletes are making moves in new arenas, some fairly obscure. Laura Flessel-Colovic has established herself as the top French fencer and one of the world’s best. Flessel-Colovic started her career at seven years old and worked her way up to winning three Olympic medals and three world championship titles.
For their contributions to female sports – from amateur and college competitions to the world stage of the Olympics and professional sports – black, female athletes have achieved parity with their white female counterparts and are celebrated around the world.
As we embark on a month-long celebration of African American History, let’s not forget these unforgettable athletes.