Class of 1942
As the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal, Alice Coachman has a monumental place in our nation’s history – let alone women’s track and field. Coachman captured the high jump in the 1948 London Olympics at the age of 24. What fewer people know is that before London, and before World War II forced cancellation of the 1940 and ’44 Games, the Albany, Ga. native was a great high-school jumper AND sprinter. And if it wasn’t for the war and the racial discrimination she faced in the South and beyond – she might have been a three-time medalist in the event.
Coachman was drawn to sprinting and jumping as a young girl, but athletic opportunities were very limited for girls in Georgia in the 1930s. But she trained hard and creatively on her own, with very little resources, then was able to join a track team at Madison High School in 1938 – trailing with Coach Harry E. Lash.
After a year, Coachman was offered a scholarship at nearby Tuskegee Prep, a pathway to prestigious Tuskegee Institute, where she trained under Cleve Abbott. Jumping barefoot and using a “combination of straight jumping and western roll techniques,” she set a high school record at age 16 in 1939, leaping 5-4, then tied that the following year. She entered and won the AAU title as well, the first of four in a row from ’39-’42 – and ranked as high as #4 on the world list in ’39 and ’41. She starred in the dashes as well, medaling and winning at multiple distances in AAU competition.
When the war was over and the Olympic Games resumed in 1948, Coachman – who had since entered Albany State College – was ready to make history. She leapt 5-6 1/8, just over an inch off the world record by Fanny Blankers-Koen. She would be heralded by parades and meetings with people like President Truman and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Coachman would become the first African-American woman to earn an endorsement deal when signed with Coca-Cola in 1952. She dedicated the rest of her life to education, the Job Corps and the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation – supporting young athletes and older, retired Olympic veterans – before passing away in Albany at age 90 in 2014.
Did You Know?
Alice Coachman won 10 AAU national high jump championships in a row between 1939 and 1948.