Remembering History: Alice Coachman blazes pathway as first Black woman to win Olympic gold

Alice Coachman Performing the High Jump
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Becoming a pioneer for Black American women in track and field wasn’t initially on the radar for Alice Coachman, but that’s exactly what happened in 1948 when Coachman became the first Black woman ever – from any country – to win an Olympic gold medal.

This summer marks the 75th anniversary of Coachman’s historic win at the 1948 Olympics in London, where she competed in high jump and cleared 5 feet 6 1/8-inches on her first attempt to set an Olympic record. As Black Heritage Month comes to a close and we look ahead to Women’s History Month in March, On Her Turf looks back at Coachman’s trail-blazing journey.

“I didn’t know I had won,” Coachman told Team USA in an interview ahead of the 2012 London Olympics. “I was on my way to receive the medal and I saw my name on the board. And, of course, I glanced over into the stands where my coach was, and she was clapping her hands.”

But it was no easy route to the top of the Olympic podium for Coachman, who grew up in southwest Georgia – the fifth of 10 children — during an era of racial segregation. The discriminatory Jim Crow laws left Coachman with little access to athletic facilities, so she took to running on dirt roads, sometimes barefoot, and built her own hurdles to practice jumping — even creating a high jump crossbar with rope and sticks.

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Despite not having the support of her parents, Coachman persevered. It was while attending Madison High School in Albany, Ga., that she joined the boys’ track team, and coach Harry E. Lash recognized and nurtured her talent. When Coachman broke the high school high-jump record while competing barefoot at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national championships as a freshman, she caught the attention of the athletic department at Tuskegee Institute (now known as Tuskegee University) in Tuskegee, Alabama. She was just 16 years old when she was offered a scholarship in 1939.

Coachman would go on to win 10 consecutive AAU outdoor high jump titles from 1939-1948. In addition to her high jump success, she won national championships in the 50 meter dash, the 100 meters and as part of the 400-meter relay team while studying at Tuskegee Institute. She also won three conference championships playing guard on the Tuskegee women’s basketball team, all while fulfilling scholarship requirements that stipulated she work while studying and training. Duties included cleaning and maintaining sports facilities and even mending uniforms.

In 1943, Coachman entered Tuskegee’s college division to study dressmaking while continuing to compete, graduating in 1946. The following year she continued her studies at Albany State College, where she earned a degree in home economics with a minor in science in 1949.

Those undoubtedly were bittersweet years for Coachman, who was at the peak of her athletic form but had no opportunity to pursue an Olympic career. World War II had forced the cancellation of both the 1940 and 1944 Games, but Coachman would finally get her golden opportunity in 1948.

Women's Olympic Winners Standing for Awards
Alice Coachman, (C) of the U.S., along with DJ Tyler (L), of Great Britain, and Micheline Ostermeyer of France, stand on a podium at Wembley Stadium to receive their awards for the Olympic women’s high jump, London, England 8/7/1948. (Photo by Bettmann via Getty Images)

But earlier in 1948, it appeared that Coachman might miss the Olympic Games altogether. Doctors discovered she had a tilted uterus and recommended that she not compete, but a determined Coachman — knowing she was the only gold-medal prospect on the women’s track and field team — had surgery to insert a rod in her back just before leaving for London.

“I didn’t want to let my country down, or my family and school,” she said. “Everyone was pushing me, but they knew how stubborn and mean I was, so it was only so far they could push me.”

Thanks to her experience as an All-American, Coachman said she wasn’t nervous when she entered Wembley Stadium in front of 83,000 fans on Aug. 7, 1948. She treated it just like any other meet, but Coachman noted she also had a secret weapon to combat any unexpected case of cottonmouth: lemons.

“The thing about the lemon, there wasn’t a lot of juice,” explained Coachman, who bested Great Britain’s Dorothy Tyler for the Olympic title. “You just take the lemon and wash your mouth with it; it’s not like an orange, that you eat it and feel heavy. I didn’t want anything heavy on my stomach to go over that bar.”

King George VI awarded Coachman her gold medal, and she got more royal treatment upon her return to the U.S.: Count Basie, the famous jazz musician, threw her a party. She met with President Harry Truman at the White House and former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and she was the guest of honor at a banquet held by the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Upon arriving back in Georgia, she was honored with “Alice Coachman Day” and a 175-mile motorcade from Atlanta to Albany, where she was greeted by the Florida A&M band.

Yet, those hometown celebrations were marked by the racial segregation that still existed at the time. In the Albany auditorium where she was honored, Blacks had to sit separately from whites. The white mayor of Albany sat on the stage with Coachman but refused to shake her hand. She had to leave her own celebration by a side door.

“The mayor, he didn’t shake my hand, and that was what everybody was talking about, how this woman was coming from England with this gold medal and the mayor didn’t shake her hand,” she remembered of the day. “I understood where the mayor stood, but to me, just to be home from across the water was fine with me, just to see my mama.”

Following her Olympic triumph, Coachman returned to Albany State to compete her education and surprised everyone when she announced her retirement at age 24. She made headlines again in 1952, when she was tapped by Coca Cola to become their spokesperson – also becoming the first Black woman athlete to earn an endorsement deal. She was featured prominently on billboards alongside 1936 four-time Olympic gold medalist Jesse Owens. In her hometown, Alice Avenue and Coachman Elementary School were named in her honor.

Team USA Road to London 100 Days Out Celebration
Sports Broadcaster Jon Naber speaks to 1948 Olympic gold medalist Alice Coachman during the Team USA Road to London 100 Days Out Celebration in Times Square on April 18, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images for USOC)

“She opened doors that no one else could open,” 1968 gold medalist Tommie Smith told Team USA. “She literally started the liberation of women in sport. … Had it not been for the Alice Coachmans of society, especially in our sport [of] track and field, I could have never been because I would have no portal to come through.”

“I made a difference among the blacks, being one of the leaders,” Coachman told The New York Times in 1996. “If I had gone to the Games and failed, there wouldn’t be anyone to follow in my footsteps. It encouraged the rest of the women to work harder and fight harder.”

She dedicated the rest of her life to education, becoming an elementary and high school teacher. She married twice, having two children with her first husband, N.F. Davis. She was widowed by her second husband, Frank Davis. In 1994, she founded the Alice Coachmen Track and Field Foundation, a nonprofit foundation based in Akron, Ohio, that assisted young athletes and retired Olympians (the foundation was dissolved in 2017).

Coachman passed away in 2014 at the age of 90. She’s been inducted into nine different halls of Fame, including the National Track and Field Hall of Fame (1975) and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame (2004). She was honored at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as one of the 100 greatest ever Olympic athletes, and two children’s books have been written about her: “Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper” and “Queen of the Track: Alice Coachman, Olympic High-Jump Champion.”

Learn more about the legendary women who blazed athletic trails in this five-part series, “Remembering History,” as On Her Turf celebrates Black Heritage Month and Women’s History Month with features on Alice Coachman, the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup champion U.S. Women’s National Team, tennis great Althea Gibson, race car driver Janet Guthrie and the 50th anniversary of Billie Jean King‘s win over Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.”  

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2023 LPGA Drive On Championship: How to watch, who’s playing in season’s first full-field event

Jin-young Ko of South Korea and Nelly Korda on the 17th tee during the final round of the CME Group Tour Championship.
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The LPGA Tour makes its return to the Arizona desert this week at the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. The season’s first full-field event features eight of the world’s top 10 players plus a slew of fresh faces as this year’s rookie class gets its first taste of competition as tour members.

This week’s event features 144 players (plus two Monday qualifiers) competing for the $1.75 million prize purse in a 72-hole tournament that will implement the LPGA’s new cutline policy for the first time. Beginning this week, the 36-hole cut will change from the top 70 players and ties to the top 65 and ties advancing to weekend action. The LPGA says it hopes to “establish a faster pace of play” with the change.”

Arizona last hosted the LPGA for the 2019 Bank of Hope Founders Cup at Wildfire Golf Club, where Jin Young Ko earned her first of four LPGA titles that season. The tour last played at Superstition Mountain in the Safeway International from 2004 to 2008, where Hall of Famers Annika Sorenstam (2004, 2005) and Lorena Ochoa (2007, 2008) each won twice, and Juli Inkster won in 2006.

The tournament marks the first of four events over the next five weeks (taking off the week of the Masters, April 7-10) and kicks off the crescendo that’s building to the LPGA’s first major of the season, The Chevron Championship, April 20-23 in its new location at The Woodlands, Texas. The 72-hole LPGA Drive On Championship features 144 players, in addition to two Monday qualifiers, who will compete for a $1.75 million purse.

How to watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

You can watch the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship on Golf Channel, Peacock, and the NBC Sports app. Check out the complete TV and streaming schedule:

  • Thursday, March 23: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Friday, March 24: 9-11 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Saturday, March 25: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel
  • Sunday, March 26: 6-10 p.m. ET, live stream; 7-9 p.m. ET, Golf Channel

Who’s playing in the 2023 LPGA Drive On Championship

Sitting out this week are world No. 1 Lydia Ko and No. 5 Minjee Lee, but No. 2 Nelly Korda and No. 3 Jin Young Ko are back in action following Ko’s return to the winner’s circle two weeks ago in Singapore, where she held off Korda by two strokes. Also in the field this week are:

  • No. 4 Atthaya Thitikul
  • No. 6 Lexi Thompson
  • No. 7 Brooke Henderson
  • No. 8 In Gee Chun
  • No. 9 Hyo-Joo Kim
  • No. 10 Nasa Hataoka
  • 2022 major winners Ashleigh Buhai, Jennifer Kupcho, Chun, Henderson

Rookies and Epson Tour graduates making their first starts as LPGA members include 20-year-old Lucy Li, a two-time Epson Tour winner who might be best known for playing the 2014 U.S.  Women’s Open as an 11-year-old; South Korea’s Hae Ran Ryu, who took medalist honors at LPGA Q-Series; and 18-year-old Alexa Pano, who finished tied for 21st at Q School to earn her card but might be best known from her role in the 2013 Netflix documentary, “The Short Game.”

Past winners, history of the Drive On Championship

The Drive On Championship was initially created as a series of LPGA events that marked the tour’s back-to-competition efforts following the pandemic. Each tournament used the “Drive On” slogan in support of the tour’s resilience, beginning with the first series event in July 2020 at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, where Danielle Kang won by one stroke over Celine Boutier. The second event, held in October 2020, replaced the three stops originally scheduled in Asia, and was held at Reynolds Lake Oconee Great Waters Course in Greensboro, Georgia. Ally McDonald captured her career first LPGA title by one stroke over Kang.

The last two “Drive On” events were staged in Florida, at Golden Ocala Golf Club (Ocala) in March 2021 and at Crown Colony Golf Club (Fort Myers) in February 2022. Austin Ernst cruised to her third career title at the 2021 edition, beating Jennifer Kupcho by five shots. The 2022 tournament marked a fresh start for the event (no longer including results or records from the 2020 and 2021 events), where Leona Maguire became the first Irish winner on tour with her victory in 2022.

Last year at the Drive On Championship

Ireland’s Leona Maguire gifted her mom and early birthday present with her first career win at the 2022 LPGA Drive On Championship. A 27-year-old Maguire, a standout at Duke and former No. 1 amateur, carded a final-round 67 to finish at 18-under 198 and won the 54-hole event by three strokes over Lexi Thompson. She became the first woman from Ireland to win on tour, and her 198 tied her career-best 54-hole score.

More about Superstition Mountain

Superstition Mountain’s Prospector Golf Course opened in 1998 and was a combined design effort by Jack Nicklaus and his son Gary. The course plays as a par-72 and stretches to 7,225 yards in length, with the women playing it at 6,526 yards. The course was home of the LPGA Safeway International from 2004-08, and was recently selected by Golfweek as one of the “Top 100 Residential Courses.”

Of note, Superstition Mountain is a female-owned facility, originally purchased in 2009 by Susan Hladky and her husband James, who died in 2011. Hladky has made a point of opening her courses to women and college players, twice hosting U.S. Women’s Open qualifying and the site of a 2025 NCAA women’s regional tournament. She’s also given membership to eight LPGA players, who play out of the club: Carlota Ciganda, Mina Harigae, Dana Finkelstein, Jaclyn Lee, Charlotte Thomas, Caroline Inglis, Jennifer Kupcho and Brianna Do.

MORE FROM ON HER TURF: 2023 March Madness — Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance

2023 March Madness: Utah Utes engineer dramatic turnaround for third-ever Sweet 16 appearance

Members of the Utah Utes celebrate their win over the Princeton Tigers in the second round of the NCAA Womens Basketball Tournament.
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SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – The No. 2-seeded Utah (27-4) women’s basketball team held off a pesky 10th-seeded Princeton squad on Sunday, winning 63-56 to advance to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championships for the first time since 2005-06 and just the third time in the program’s history.

“I’m proud of our team,” said eighth-year head coach Lynne Roberts after the second-round win at Utah’s Hunstman Center. “We set out to do this a year ago. We lost in this game at University of Texas and the goal was to be able to host (this year) so that we could have that home-court advantage and it made a difference.”

Utah’s fourth-year junior Alissa Pili backed up her recent second-team All-American honor with another 20-plus-point performance, scoring 28 on 8-for 13 shooting with 10 rebounds and going 11-for 13 on free throws. Sophomore forward Jenna Johnson added 15 points and six rebounds.

There’s been a lot of talk this weekend about how the Utes’ previous few seasons have ended – beginning with a rough 14-17 season that was cut short in 2020 due to the pandemic, followed by an abysmal 5-16 record in 2020-21. But the tide turned last year, as Utah rebounded with a 21-12 season that ended with a 78-56 loss to Texas in Austin in the second round of the NCAA tournament one year ago.

So, what changed?

“Last year, everyone was new to the NCAA tournament, so I think everyone was just experiencing it for the first time,” mused Johnson. “Losing in the second round last year, we’re definitely a lot hungrier this year, and then obviously hosting in Salt Lake, it’s fun just being in your own environment, to be around your own fans. I think it gives us an elevated level of confidence, both knowing what it’s like to play in this tournament and also getting to be at home.”

“Yeah, freshman year was kind of rough,” added third-year sophomore Kennady McQueen, who chipped in nine points Sunday. “We did experience losing a lot. … Coach Roberts, she said we are not going to have another season like that. We all stood behind her — the people that stayed — and brought in great people like starting last year with Jenna and Gi (Gianna Kneepkens) and people like that who have had a huge impact in helping us to where we are today. …

“When you get together a group of people that have the same goal in mind and will do make anything to make it happen, I think that’s where we have seen our success rate going up. This past offseason, we just kept getting better, and of course, the addition of the Alissa Pili really helped. When you bring a group of girls that have the same dream and same goal at the end of the year and doesn’t care about personal stats more than winning, I think we get the season that we have today, and it prepares us for deep run in March.”

In particular, McQueen believe it was Utah’s improvement in their defense that was crucial to the turnaround. “Everyone knows how good we are on offense, but if we can’t get stops, it doesn’t matter how good you are on offense,” she said. “So that’s just been a key the whole past off-season and all of this season — just getting better on defense.”

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Roberts credits their defensive improvement with a “philosophical mindset change,” explaining, “We worked on [defense] a lot differently, a lot more intentionally. Strategically we made some changes of how we are going to defend, and I won’t bore you with that. But there was a lot, just different things because you have to play to your strengths. You can’t be a run-and-jump pressing team if you don’t have the depth and athletes to do it. You can’t be a zone team if you are not super big. You have to figure out what fits your personnel, and so that’s what we did.”

There’s also the undeniable impact of Pili, a transfer from USC who has found her stride as a Ute, where she recently was named the Pac-12 Player of the Year.

“She kind of is the straw that stirs the drink for us right now,” Roberts said regarding the 21-year-old Alaska native. “She’s a nightmare to defend because she can shoot the three, and she’s also really athletic and mobile, so it doesn’t matter who we are playing. I think you have to gameplan for her. But then with her three-point shooting, you know, you have to pick your poison.”

But Roberts also gave plenty of kudos to Johnson, whom she describes as “phenomenal.”

“She’s 19 going on 40,” Roberts said of Johnson. “She’s the most mature, even-keeled consistent player we have. What I love about her is she is who she is. She’s confident in who she is. She knows who she is. She also is incredibly busy off the court.

“We were talking as we were getting ready to watch film, just shooting the breeze a bunch of us, we were talking about movies. And she was like, Oh, I don’t watch movies. Why not? I don’t have time. I get bored. What do you mean you don’t have time? Do you watch shows? No, I don’t ever watch TV. It is because she is doing all of these other extracurricular activities.”

As for guiding the Utes to becoming a championship program, Roberts still sees it as an uphill battle – but one that she and her players are ready for.

“I always use the analogy of pushing the boulder up the hill,” she said. “And doing things for the first time, you have to have that mindset. You have to keep pushing. It’s been incredibly fun to see the support, and I think the swell is a perfect word for it. Most importantly, our players feel it.

“This is why you play, right? And it means so much. I know I say it over and over, but this is not going to be a flash-in-the-pan [season]. This isn’t going to be a ‘Oh, remember that year they had such an incredible year?’ We are going to keep doing it.”

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