Match Point: 7 Black Female Athletes Who Leveled the Playing Field

October 30, 2012  |  
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Overcoming racial and gender barriers – and sometimes, physical limitations – these seven black female athletes displayed determination and grace under fire.  Their pioneering efforts redefined the notion of female athletes, and showed the world that black women could compete and win on any field.

The women’s track and field team leaving for Europe in 1936. Louise Stokes is on the far right. Via Associated Press

Louise Stokes

Born in 1913, Louise Stokes was one of the first two black women to qualify for the Olympics.  In the 1932 Olympic Trials, she placed third in the 100 meters race, which qualified her for a spot on the women’s 400-meter relay team.  However due to the racial climate of that era, Stokes was forced to stand on the sidelines while her white teammates competed in the Los Angeles Olympics.

Four years later, she qualified for the 400-meter relay team that represented America in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but once again, she was replaced by a white runner during the competition. However, her efforts paved the way for future Olympian Alice Coachman.

Coachman clearing the bar on the running high jump in the Women’s National Track Meet in 1948. She would go on to be the first black woman to win Olympic gold. AP Photo, File


Alice Coachman

Born in 1923, Alice Coachman was the first black woman to win an Olympic Gold medal. In 1948, she was one of nine black females on the Olympic track-and-field team.  The team was 75 percent black, reflecting the strides that black women made in this sport since the pioneering days of Louise Stokes.

The 1948 Olympic games were held in London, and although Coachman suffered from severe back pain during the competition, she jumped 5 feet, 6 ¼ inches, winning gold on her first jump, and also setting an Olympic record.  In 1952, Coachman signed a contract with Coca-Cola, making her the first black female athlete with a product endorsement deal.

Image via


Marcenia Lyle Stone

Born in 1931, Marcenia Lyle Stone, also known as Toni Stone, was the first woman to play in the Negro American Baseball League. In 1953, she became the second baseman for the Indianapolis Clowns. During the first half of the 1950s, many of the black male players were being recruited by Major League Baseball.  The National American Baseball League was in dire straits and signed Stone to attract attention and increase ticket sales.  However, this 22-year old woman was a true baseball player who performed like  – and was treated as – one of the guys.  Stone had a .243 batting average in the 50 games she played for the Clowns.

Wilma Rudolph competing in a relay race in 1961. Image: AP Photo


Wilma Rudolph

Born in 1940, Wilma Rudolph was the first American woman of any color to win three Olympic gold medals in track and field.  Her feat is even more miraculous because she was born prematurely, and at the age of four, contracted infantile paralysis, which required her to wear a leg brace and orthopedic shoes. Rudolph also suffered from scarlet fever and polio. With extensive physical therapy and sheer willpower, she developed into a world-class athlete.

While a 16-year old high school student, Rudolph won a bronze medal in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.  Four years later, in the 1960 Rome Olympics, she won a gold medal in the 100-meter, 200-meter and sprint relay competitions.

Serena winning another tournament title, the WTA Championships, over the weekend in Turkey against Maria Sharapova. Image: AP Photo


Serena Williams

Born in 1981, Serena Williams has set the tennis world on its head with a staggering list of accomplishments. She has won four U.S. Open titles,  five Wimbledon titles, five Australian Open titles, and one French Open. In addition, Williams has won four Olympic gold medals.

She has been ranked the number one female tennis player in the world on numerous occasions, and her serve has been ranked the best among female tennis players. Her career winnings have grown from a modest $28,230 in the mid-1990s to more than $40 million – the most of any female athlete — and her endorsements total more than $15 million. Part owner of the Miami Dolphins football team, Williams is also involved in several other business ventures.

Thomas in her winning Ladies Figure Skating Championship performance. AP Photo/Jack Smith

Debi Thomas

Born in 1967, figure skater Debi Thomas has achieved success both on the ice and in the operating room.  In 1986, she became the first black woman to win the U.S. Ladies Figure Skating Championship. That same year, Thomas also won the World Figure Skating Championship. Fast forward to the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, where she won a bronze medal, making Thomas the first black person to win a medal in the winter games.

After her skating career was over, she returned to college where she earned an engineering degree in 1991 and a medical degree in 1997.  Thomas is currently in private practice as an orthopedic surgeon.

The Tulsa Shock guard Sheryl Swoopes on the right against the Minnesota Lynx forward Maya Moore. AP Photo/Paul Battaglia

Sheryl Swoopes

Born in 1971, Sheryl Swoopes has achieved success as a college and professional basketball player and also as an Olympian. While attending Texas Tech, Swoopes scored a staggering 1,000 points in just 46 basketball games.  In 1996, when the Women’s National Basketball Association league was formed, she was the first player to be signed, and has been the league’s MVP on three separate occasions.

In addition, Swoopes won a gold medal in three consecutive Olympic basketball games held in 1996, 2000, and 2004. Often referred to as “the female Michael Jordan,” she also has the distinction of being the first female basketball player to have a Nike shoe named after her: the Air Swoopes.

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