November 9, 1923 – July 14, 2014
Alice Marie Coachman was born in Albany, Georgia to Evelyn and Fred Coachman. The fifth of her parents’ ten children, Coachman’s father worked as a plasterer while her mother was a stay-at-home mom. Coachman’s family was not wealthy and thus even the children were expected to pitch in. As a child, Coachman picked cotton, plums, and pecans which would then be sold.
Growing up in the Jim Crow South and with sexist views at home, Coachman’s local society attempted to place limitations on her. While Coachman was able to attend school, the segregated school lacked resources. At the time women were discouraged from participating in sports as it was deemed unladylike. Coachman’s father shared these beliefs and would punish Coachman for leaving the confines of the front porch to run and play sports with the boys.
Yet, Coachman received support and encouragement from her fifth-grade teacher, Cora Bailey, and aunt, Carrie Spry. With their support, Coachman became one of the best athletes in town. This was despite being denied access to training facilities and not being allowed to participate in general competitions. Refusing to let these obstacles stop her, Coachman used fields and dirt roads to practice running barefoot. She worked on her high jump with old equipment and made a crossbar out of rope and sticks.
The support of teachers and schools would continue to be vital in Coachman’s life. While attending Madison High School, the boys’ track coach, Harry E. Lash, took notice of Coachman and assisted with her training. Competing in all-Black track and field meets across the region, Coachman distinguished herself as a standout talent. This resulted in a scholarship offer to continue her high school education at the Tuskegee Institute.
After completing high school, Coachman moved on to the dressmaking course at Tuskegee’s college. She continued her track-and-field career but also played on the basketball team. Coachman had broken several records in high school and would continue to dominate Amateur Athlete Union (AAU) events during college.
A serious prospect, Coachman’s Olympic debut was postponed by the cancellation of the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games due to World War II. Yet, Coachman was able to continue competing in America. She won national 50m, 100m, and 400m relay competitions. Coachman won the high jump title every year for the decade of 1939 to 1948. These accomplishments were achieved during a period when she also led the Tuskegee team to three consecutive basketball championships.
By 1948, Coachman was 24 years old and nursing a back injury. She had put aside dreams of competing at the Olympics until U.S. Olympic officials invited her to trials. Her performance at the Olympic trials made Coachman a shoo-in for a spot on the 1948 American track-and-field team. At the games in London, Coachman set an Olympic record for a high jump of 5 feet 6 ⅛ inches on her first try. She was awarded the gold medal in the high jump becoming the first Black woman of any country to win an Olympic gold medal and the only American woman to win gold at those Olympic games.
Coachman and the other American Olympians were greeted as heroes upon their return. Many of the athletes, which included Coachman and several other Black Olympians, were invited to visit President Harry Truman at the White House. Back in Georgia, a motorcade was organized for Coachman’s 175-mile ride from Atlanta to Albany with people gathered on the sides of the roads in celebration.
Unfortunately, upon arriving in Albany, Coachman found that little had changed. A segregated ceremony was held in her honor where the audience was divided by race. While the mayor attended the event, he refused to shake Coachman’s hand. And despite being the guest of honor, Coachman was made to leave the event via a side door.
Having won 34 national titles and an Olympic gold medal, Coachman felt that she’d achieved all of her track-and-field goals. She decided to end her career on a high note and retired. The year after her Olympic win, Coachman completed a B.S. in Home Economics with a minor in science at Albany State College.
Coachman chose to live a relatively quiet life working as a teacher and track coach. She married and divorced, becoming the mother to a son and daughter along the way, and later remarried. Coachman was active with Job Corps and established a nonprofit to help young and post-Olympic athletes.
In 1952, Coca-Cola tapped Coachman to become a spokesperson. This made Coachman the first Black female athlete with an endorsement deal. She was inducted into nine sports halls of fame and was honored at the 1996 Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Alice Coachman died on July 14, 2014, at the age of 90 in Albany, Georgia several months after suffering a stroke.
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