Alice Coachman: High Jumping Into Olympic History

Kimberley NashSenior Writer ISeptember 19, 2009

Track and Field, more than anything else, is about an individual's ability to excel under the greatest of pressure using nothing but their God-given skill and an unyielding desire to win.

Many who misunderstand the sport and its greatness will mistake it for simply running, jumping, and throwing. However, none of those people have likely ever stood in front of a million plus with the weight of their country's flag draped heavily on their shoulder with only one shot at Olympic glory—that is true pressure at its height.

Alice Coachman was born on Nov. 9, 1923 to Fred and Evelyn Coachman of Albany, Ga. She was the fifth of 10 children and as a young girl she enjoyed engaging in activities that allowed her to push the limits of her body—particularly activities which allowed her to run and jump as fast and as far as she could.

Unfortunately, her parents were not supportive of her interests and felt that it was dangerous for an African-American woman living in the segregated southern climate of Albany, Ga to engage in any sports at all.

They preferred that she take up a more ladylike interest and leave the athletics to the boys.

It would take the urging and advocating of both her fifth-grade teacher and her aunt to convince her parents to let Alice pursue her dreams because she had a lot of talent that had yet to be seen.

In the meantime, Alice trained as best she could—using her surrounding environment as equipment. She ran up and down the dusty dirt roads and climbed the modest hills of Albany; anything she could do to keep herself in shape and give her an  edge.

By the time she entered Madison High School in 1938, she was well-known around her small-town and upon joining the high school track team at age 16 she was beginning to make a name for herself as one of the best athletes in the nation—thanks in large part to the tutelage of the boys track coach at Madison High, Harry Lash.

She progressed so quickly in fact that Tuskegee Institute, located in Tuskegee Alabama, would come calling and grant her a scholarship to their preparatory school as well as give her a spot on their track team for the 1939 season.

She would not disappoint them, scoring accolades early, when she High Jumped her way to an Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national championship prior to taking one lesson at her new school.

She set both a high school and a collegiate record on that day—even more impressive is that she did it barefoot.

While enrolled at Tuskegee, from 1939-1946, Alice would win an unprecedented 22 National Championships in not only the high jump (eight times) but also the 50-meter dash (four times), the 100-meter dash (three times), as a member of the 400 meter relay team (four times), and as a player on the Tuskegee women's basketball team (three times).

Her success would continue at Albany State where in 1947 and 1948, she continued her reign as High Jump champion while also winning yet another title for the 50-meter dash (1947).

Alice was never able to showcase her talents at the Olympic level during her prime years, however,  (1940-1944); the competition was canceled due to World War's I & II. However, Alice remained determined to make her name as one of the best and did not hesitate to try out for the 1948 Olympics.

At the Olympic team trials, Coachman broke the previous record of  5 feet 3-1/4 inches, set in 1932,  with one of her own at 5'4"—qualifying for a place on the Olympic team at the ripe age of 25—considered "old" for an Olympian at the time.

Alice finally made it to the Olympic stage and she would not let glory pass her by, jumping a record-setting 5 feet 6-1/8 inches and winning the coveted gold medal.

Her record would stand for eight years.

She was not only the first African-American woman to win a gold medal but was the only woman from her 1948 Track and Field team to take home the gold.

Alice Coachman became the only Olympic Gold Medalist, either male or female, to win ten consecutive National Championships and is one of only three American women since World War II to win gold for the Olympic High Jump.

Just a little girl with a big dream who now finds herself recognized as one of the greatest athletes in track and field history.