Key African American Women in Sports

Black Women Excelling in the Sports World

Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Javelin Throw, Olympics, Seoul, 1988
Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Javelin Throw, Olympics, Seoul, 1988. Getty Images / Tony Duffy

Historically, women and African Americans faced serious barriers to participation in professional sports, thanks to discrimination in leagues, contests and other events. But some women pioneered to shatter the barriers, and many others who followed have excelled. Here are some noteworthy African American women from the sports world.

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Althea Gibson

Althea Gibson
Althea Gibson. Bert Hardy / Picture Post / Getty Images

From a poor and troubled childhood during the Great Depression, Althea Gibson (1927 - 2003) discovered tennis and her talent playing the sport. At the time, the major tennis competitions were held at whites-only club, but when Gibson was 23, she became the first Black player (male or female) to receive an invitation to Nationals. She continued to break boundaries in her career, breaking the color barrier in international tennis and becoming the first Black competitor at Wimbledon.

Over the course of her career, Gibson won 11 Grand Slam titles and ultimately was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame.

More: Althea Gibson | Althea Gibson Quotes | Althea Gibson Picture Gallery

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Jackie Joyner-Kersee

Jackie Joyner-Kersee - Long Jump
Jackie Joyner-Kersee - Long Jump. Tony Duffy / Getty Images

A track and field athlete, Joyner-Kersee (born 1962) is ranked as one of the best all-round female athletes in the world. Her specialties are the long jump and heptathlon. She won medals in the 1984, 1988, 1992, and 1996 Olympics, taking home three gold medals, one silver and two bronze. 

After her athletic career ended, Joyner-Kersee turned her attention towards philanthropic work. She created her own foundation in 1988 to provide families with access to athletics and resources to improve overall quality of life. In 2007, she joined with several other iconic athletes to encourage professional athletes and community volunteers to make a difference, and in 2011, she partnered with Comcast on a program to offer low-cost internet access for low-income families. She serves on the governing board for US Track and Field.

Biography: Jackie Joyner-Kersee

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Florence Griffith Joyner

Florence Griffith-Joyner
Florence Griffith-Joyner. Tony Duffy / Getty Images

Track and field star Florence Griffith Joyner (1959 - 1998) set the 100m and 200m world records in 1988, which have not been surpassed, leading her ot be called the "fastest woman in the world." Sometimes called "Flo-Jo," she was known for both her flashy personal style of dress (and fingernails), and for her speed records. At the 1988 Olympics, Griffith Joyner won three gold medals, and she set her unbroken speed records at the US Olympic trials.

She was related to Jackie Joyner-Kersee through her marriage to Al Joyner, Jackie's brother. Sadly, she died in her sleep at age 38 of an epileptic seizure. 

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Lynette Woodard

Lynette Woodard on defense, 1990
Lynette Woodard on defense, 1990. Tony Duffy /Allsport /Getty Images

A basketball star who was the first woman player on the Harlem Globetrotters, Lynette Woodard (born 1959) also participated in the gold medal team in women's basketball at the 1984 Olympics. The following year, she broke the gender barrier when she was signed to the Globetrotters.

When the Women's National Basketball Association was formed in 1996, Woodard was immediately signed by the Cleveland Rockers. She played in the WNBA until 1999, when she retired and eventually became a coach and athletic director; she also had a career in finance as a stockbroker and financial consultant.

Biography and records: Lynette Woodard

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Wyomia Tyus

Wyomia Tyus Crossing the Finish Line
Wyomia Tyus Crossing the Finish Line, Mexico City, 1968. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Wyomia Tyus (born 1945) won consecutive Olympic gold medals for the 100-meter dash. Caught up in the Black power controversy at the 1968 Olympics, she chose to compete rather than boycott and also chose not to give the Black power salute as some other athletes did upon winning medals.

Tyus was the first person to successfully defend a title in the Olympic 100-meter dash; only three athletes since her have duplicated the feat. Following her athletic career, she became a high school coach, and she was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.

More: Wyomia Tyus | Wyomia Tyus Quotes

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Wilma Rudolph

1960 Summer Olympics
1960 Summer Olympics. Robert Riger/Getty Images

Wilma Rudolph (1940 - 1994), who wore metal braces on her legs as a child after contracting polio, grew into the "fastest woman in the world" as a sprinter. She won three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympics.

After her retirement as an athlete in 1962, she worked as a coach with children who came from underprivileged backgrounds. In the 1960s, she traveled extensively abroad to represent the US, attending sporting events and visiting schools. She coached and taught for many years before her fatal cancer diagnosis, which took her life at the age of 54.

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Venus and Serena Williams

Day Twelve: The Championships - Wimbledon 2016
Venus and Serena Williams, Day Twelve: The Championships - Wimbledon 2016. Adam Pretty / Getty Images

Venus Williams (born 1980) and Serena Williams (1981) are sisters who have dominated the sport of women's tennis. Together they have won 23 Grand Slam titles as singles. They competed against each other in the Grand Slam finals eight times between 2001 and 2009. Each has won an Olympic gold medal in singles, and playing together they have won the gold medal in doubles three times (in 2000, 2008, and 2012).

Both sisters have parlayed their fame into other avenues, as well as significant charity work. Venus has worked in interior design and fashion, while Serena has worked with shoes and beauty, as well as significant charity work building schools in Jamaica and Kenya. The sisters formed the Williams Sisters Fund in 2016 to work on charitable endeavors together.

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Sheryl Swoopes

Jia Perkins, Sheryl Swoopes
Jia Perkins, Sheryl Swoopes. Shane Bevel / Getty Images

Sheryl Swoopes (born 1971) was a top-tier basketball player. After playing at Texas Tech for college, she then joined the USA team for the Olympics in 1996. She won three Olympic gold medals in women's basketball as part of the USA team, in 1996, 2000, and 2004.

Swoopes was recruited as a key player when the WNBA began in 1996-1997, and led the Houston Comets to the first-ever WNBA title; she also won a slew of MVP awards and was named to the All-Star Game. Swoopes has followed her on-court career with coaching and broadcast work with women's college basketball.

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Debi Thomas

Debi Thomas - 1985
Debi Thomas - 1985. David Madison / Getty Images

Figure skater Debi Thomas (born 1967) won the 1986 US and then World championship, and took the bronze medal in 1988 at the Calgary Olympics in a rivalry with Katarina Witt of East Germany. She was the first African American woman to win a US national title in women's single figure skating, and the first Black athlete to win a medal at the Winter Olympics.

A premed student at the time of her skating career, she then studied medicine and became an orthopedic surgeon, specializing in hip and knee replacements. She took up a private practice in a coal-mining town, Richlands, in Virginia. Unfortunately, her practice failed, and she let her license lapse sometime around 2014, when she retired from the public eye entirely.

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Alice Coachman

Alice Coachman of Tuskegee Institute Club on the High Jump
Alice Coachman of Tuskegee Institute Club on the High Jump. Bettmann/Getty Images

Alice Coachman (1923 - 2014) was the first African American woman to win an Olympic gold medal. She won the honors in the high jump competition in the London Olympics of 1948, even after facing discrimination which did not allow non-white girls to use training facilities in the South; she would be the only American woman to win gold at that Olympic Games. Years later, she was honored at the 1996 Olympics as one of the 100 greatest Olympians.

After retiring at age 25, she worked in education and with the Job Corps. In 1952, she became the first African American woman to endorse an international product, signing as a spokeswoman with Coca-Cola. Coachman's success opened the door for many future athletes, although her successors often faced many of the same struggles she had. She died in 2014.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Key African American Women in Sports." ThoughtCo, Sep. 3, 2021, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2021, September 3). Key African American Women in Sports. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Key African American Women in Sports." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).