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Black History Makers: Ten of the Best

In celebration of February’s Black History Month, we are sharing the stories of ten incredible history-making athletes, who are also some of the best of all-time:

Alice Coachman, Track & Field:
Coachman, who passed away in July of 2014, was unable to compete in the Olympic Games as they were cancelled in 1940 and 1944 because of World War II. In the opinion of sportswriter Eric Williams, “Had she competed in those canceled Olympics, we would probably be talking about her as the No. 1 female athlete of all time.”

Willye White, Track & Field: White, the first American track & field athlete to compete in five Olympics, was just a 16-year-old high school sophomore when she won a silver medal in the long jump in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. White won her second silver medal in 1964 as a member of the 400-meter relay team in Tokyo, Japan. In all, White was a member of more than 30 international track & field teams and won a dozen AAU long jump titles in her career. USA Track & Field inducted her into its hall of fame in 1981 — one of her 11 sports hall of fame inductions. In 1999, Sports Illustrated for Women named her one of the 100 greatest women athletes in the 20th century. She is a recipient of the WSF Wilma Rudolph Courage Award (1998) and a member of the WSF International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Althea Gibson, Tennis: During the tumultuous Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Gibson was the first tennis player to cross the sport’s color lines. She won her first Glam Slam in 1956 — a French Open championship — and won both Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals the next year. In total, Gibson won 11 Grand Slam titles and is a member of the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In 1980, she was a member of our inaugural class of the WSF International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Wilma Rudolph, Track & Field: A champion who was the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games, Rudolph is also regarded as a civil rights pioneer. Along with other 1960 Olympic athletes — like Cassius Clay, who later became Muhammad Ali — Rudolph became an international star due to the first international television coverage of the Olympics that year.

Seemingly, the odds were stacked against Rudolph from a very early age. She contacted “infantile paralysis” (a polio-related disease) at the age of 4 and although she would recover from the disease, she was forced to wear a leg brace and an orthopedic shoe until around age ten. She went on to elevate women’s track & field worldwide, winning the United Press Athlete of the Year 1960 and Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year for 1960 and 1961. Also in 1961, Rudolph won the James E. Sullivan Award, an award for the top amateur athlete in the United States She was an inaugural member of the WSF International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and is the namesake of our Wilma Rudolph Courage award, an honor that recognizes a female athlete who exhibits extraordinary courage in her athletic performance, demonstrates the ability to overcome adversity, makes significant contributions to sports and serves as an inspiration and role model to those who face challenges, overcomes them and strives for success at all levels

Cheryl Miller, Basketball: An Olympic gold medal winner in 1984, Miller was one of the first pioneering female basketball players. At the University of Southern California, Miller was a four-year letter winner, scored 3,018 career points (sixth all-time in NCAA history), and was a four-time All-American. She was named Naismith College Player of the Year three times and earned the Wade Trophy (Player of the Year) once. After graduating from USC in 1986, she was drafted by several professional basketball leagues, including the United States Basketball League, a men’s league. Miller is currently the women’s head coach at Oklahoma’s Langston University and serves as a sideline reporter for TNT’s NBA coverage. In 1991, she was induced into the WSF International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Debi Thomas, Figure Skating: Thomas, the first African-American to hold a national title in Ladies’ Figure Skating, Thomas won both the US and World Championship title in 1986; she was also awarded with the WSF Sportswoman of the Year award that same year. At the 1988 Calgary Games, she won the bronze medal, becoming the first black athlete to medal at the Winter Olympics. At the height of her skating success, Thomas was a full-time Pre-Med student at Stanford University. She is now an orthopedic surgeon, specializing in hip and knee replacement.

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Track & Field: Kersee is considered among the all-time greatest athletes in the women’s heptathlon as well as in the women’s long jump. She won three gold, one silver, and two bronze Olympic medals, in those two events at four different Olympic Games. Sports Illustrated voted Joyner-Kersee the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th century, just ahead of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. Not just a track star, Joyner-Kersee was also a basketball star ay UCLA, starting as Bruins forward from 1980 – 1983. She was the first winner of the WSF Wilma Rudolph Courage Award in 1996, after overcoming injury at the 1996 Atlanta Games to win bronze in the long jump.

Dominque Dawes, Gymnastics: Dawes was a 10-year member of the U.S. national gymnastics team, the 1994 U.S. all-around senior National Champion, a three-time Olympian, a World Championships silver medalist and a member of the gold-medal winning “Magnificent Seven” at the 1996 Summer Olympics. She was the first African-American woman to win an individual gymnastics medal and the first black person of any nationality or gender to win an Olympic gold medal in gymnastics. Dawes served as WSF President in 2005 and 2006.

Vonetta Flowers, Bobsled: Flowers was a star sprinter and long jumper at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and originally aspired to make the U.S.Summer Olympic Team. After several failed attempts, Flowers turned to bobsledding, and found success as a brakewoman almost immediately. At the 2002 Winter Olympics, she, along with driver Jill Bakken, won the gold medal in the two-woman event, becoming the first black person to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics. In 1998, Flowers received a grant from the WSF Travel & Training Fund.

Serena Williams, Tennis: Largely considered one of the best players — male or female — the game has ever seen, Williams holds the most major singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles combined amongst active players. Her record of 34 Grand Slam titles puts her sixth on the all-time list: 19 in singles, 13 in women’s doubles, and 2 in mixed doubles. In 1999, Williams won the U.S. Open women’s singles title and became the first black woman to win a Grand Slam tournament title since Althea Gibson in 1958. Williams has won four Olympic gold medals, one in women’s singles and three in women’s doubles, an all-time record shared with her sister Venus. In 2000, alongside sister Venus, Williams was honored with our Sportswoman of the Year award.

To view photos from all these incredible athletes. visit our photo gallery on Facebook here.