During Black History Month, we honour the greats of previous generations that paved the way for so many of us to be where we are today. In sports, it is no different. There are so many men and women who sacrificed a lot and made history in the process.
By doing this, they opened the door for an entire generation of great athletes. So, we will be looking at some of the great black women athletes that paved the way.
If I am honest, this is the hardest article I may ever write. I am forced to minimises a lifetime of black women being great into a four-minute blog post. It seems almost disrespectful; in the same way, it feels disrespectful to limit Black History to just one month.
The real issue that I had in writing this was where to start. I wanted to write about the person who I think is the greatest athlete I have ever seen. That is Serena Williams, except she is not history. Her story is still being written, especially now at the Australian Open.
I could also talk about her sister, Venus, but her story is also still being written. I then realised the main message I would like to share is how the Williams sisters’ success would not be possible without Althea Gibson. Gibson is the first black person to win a Grand Slam title. She is also the first black tennis player to get invited to Wimbledon.
That is tennis, so let us now look at athletics. We cannot celebrate the champions that Allyson Felix, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, and Elaine Thompson are without acknowledging Wilma Rudolph. She would become the first black woman to ever take home three gold medals at a single Olympics. Rudolph did this despite being diagnosed with double pneumonia, scarlet fever, and polio. She was also told she would never walk again all at the age of four. Against all odds, her success would ultimately help to elevate track and field.
There is also Alice Coachman, the first black woman to win an Olympic medal in the high jump. Interesting fact alert! She was the first black female athlete to endorse a consumer product when she signed with Coca-Cola. For the British people, do you know who Tessa Sanderson CBE is? Well, she is the first Black British woman to win an Olympic Gold Medal.
Someone whose achievements I do not think we talk about enough is Florence Griffith Joyner. The World Records she set in the 100m and 200m in 1988 still stand to this day. She has been the fastest woman in the world for thirty-three years. In the same period that Flo-Jo was running her opponents off the track, Jackie Joyner-Kersee was winning her three gold, one silver, and two bronze Olympic medals in the heptathlon. These achievements meant that Sports Illustrated magazine called her the Greatest Female Athlete of All-Time.
Switching gears to a different sport, does the name Debi Thomas ring a bell? Well in 1986, Thomas became the first black woman to win a US figure skating championship. Also, in 1988 she was the first black woman to win a medal for the USA at the Winter Olympics. She constantly battled being called ‘angry’ and ‘overly competitive’ by judges. Thomas also challenged the norm of figure skating when she famously wore a black unitard at the Olympics. This was banned by International Skating Union.
Now we all know Muhammad Ali, but did you know his daughter Laila Ali was also a world champion boxer? She retired with a record of 25–0. Ali was also the first woman to headline a pay-per-view boxing event when she faced Jacqui Frazier-Lyde.
Lastly, you all know I love Maya Moore and Candace Parker. It is also important to know that their heroes included the likes of Sheryl Swoopes. Swoopes was the first player to be signed at the formation of the WNBA and the first woman to have her own signature shoe. She also won three Olympic Gold medals, three MVP awards, and four WNBA Championships.
They also idolised Lisa Leslie, who played with a young Candace Parker for a short period. Leslie was the first player to dunk in a WNBA game. But that wasn’t just a party trick. She was also a three-time MVP, four-time Olympic Gold Medallist, and a two-time WNBA Champion.
Listen, I could go on and on naming all these amazing women. I could talk about Maggie Alphonsi, Dominique Dawes, Willye White, Tidye Pickett, Jessica Ennis-Hill, Evelyn Ashford and so many others. I could also tell you about the impact their journeys now have had on the great Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Naomi Osaka, Coco Gauff, Claressa Shields, Simone Manuel, Dina Asher-Smith, and all these amazing women we look up to now. There are so many who left footprints for our current heroines to follow and to whom a debt of gratitude is owed.
Next week we will look at some of the great black men but for this week we must appreciate the great black women that dominated before our time and those that are dominating now.