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

Many sports have been closed to women and African Americans through discrimination in leagues, contests and other events. But some women have pioneered past the barriers, and 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, Althea Gibson discovered tennis and her talent playing the sport. It was not until the year she was 23 that major tennis competitions were opened to black players like Gibson.

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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, she has been considered the best all-round female athlete 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. 

Biography: Jackie Joyner-Kersee

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Florence Griffith Joyner

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

Florence Griffith Joyner's 100m and 200m world records, set in 1988, have not (at this writing) been surpassed.  Sometimes called Flo-Jo, she was known for both her flashy personal style of dress (and fingernails), and for her speed records.  She was related to Jackie Joyner-Kersee through her marriage to Al Joyner.  She died 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 also participated in the 1984 gold medal team in women's basketball at the 1984 Olympics.

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 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.

Biography: Wyomia Tyus

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Wilma Rudolph

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

Wilma Rudolph, 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.  After her retirement as an athlete in 1962, she worked as a coach with children who came from underprivileged backgrounds.

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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 22 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, and playing together they have won the gold medal in doubles three times.

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Sheryl Swoopes

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

Sheryl Swoopes played basketball.  She played at Texas Tech for college, and then joined the USA team for the Olympics. When the WNBA was begun, she was the first player signed. She won three Olympic gold medals in women's basketball as part of the USA team.  

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Debi Thomas

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

 Figure skater Debi Thomas won the 1986 US and then World championship, and took the bronze medal in 1988 at Calgary 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.  She took up a private practice in a coal-mining town, Richlands, in Virginia, where her practice failed, and she let her license lapse. Two divorces and her struggles with bipolar disorder further complicated her life.

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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 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. She had transcended discrimination which did not allow "colored" girls to use trainng facilities in the South. It was a Tuskegee Preparatory School, which she entered at age 16, where her track and field work really had an opportunity. She was also a basketball player in college. 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.