Coachman, Alice (1923—)

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Coachman, Alice (1923—)

First African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Born on November 9, 1923, in Albany, Georgia; daughter of Fred Coachman and Evelyn Jackson; attended Tuskegee Institute High School; Albany State, BA in Home Economics, 1949; married Frank Davis (divorced); children: Richmond and Diane.

Won an Olympic gold medal for the women's high jump, 5′6½″, setting an Olympic record (1948); holds record for most consecutive Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championships in outdoor high jump (1939–48); was AAU champion, 50 meters (1943–47); was AAU champion, 100 meters (1942, 1945, 1946); was AAU champion, indoor high jump (1941, 1945, 1946); was AAU champion, indoor 50 meters (1945, 1946).

By the last event on the last day of Olympic competition at the 1948 London Games, the U.S. team had been all but shut out in women's track and field. They had watched victory after victory go to the Netherlands. If the women's team wanted to take home a gold medal, it would have to be in the high jump. As the bar was raised past the 5′3″ mark, the competition was narrowed to three jumpers: Micheline Ostermeyer of France, Dorothy Tyler of Great Britain, and Alice Coachman of the United States. Though it was late in the afternoon, Wembley stadium was packed with 65,000 spectators who had come to witness this final Olympic contest. The jumpers were given three attempts to clear the bar at each subsequent height and soon Micheline Ostermeyer was eliminated. The battle between Coachman and Tyler continued. When the bar was raised to 5′6½″, Coachman and Tyler both cleared the height. Tyler, however, had more misses, and Alice Coachman was declared the winner, setting a new Olympic record. Recalling her victory, Coachman remarked in an interview with Essence magazine, "I've always believed that I could do whatever I set my mind to do; I've had that strong will, that oneness of purpose, all my life. That morning I knew I had the ability; I just called upon myself and the Lord to let the best come through."

Tyler, Dorothy J. (1920—)

English high jumper. Name variations: competed as Dorothy Odam in 1936; as Dorothy Tyler in 1948; Odam-Tyler. Born Dorothy Odam in Great Britain on March 14, 1920; married; children: two.

Won a silver medal in the high jump in the Berlin Olympics (1936); won a silver medal in the high jump in the London Olympics (1948).

Britain's Dorothy Tyler came in second in the high jump finals in the 1948 Olympic Games in London with 5′6¼″. At the time, she was the only Olympic athlete to equal the winning height in the high jump in two successive Olympics and still lose first place under the "tie-break" rules; Tyler had the most failures at the winning height. In the 1936 Olympics, in another long drawn out duel, 16-year-old Tyler, then competing as Dorothy Odam, had placed second to Ibolya Csák of Hungary in a jump off. Both competitors had a jump of 5′3″ but Tyler had the greater number of failures. Had a later rule applied for deciding ties, Tyler would have been the champion.

Coachman was born in Albany, Georgia, in 1923, the fifth of ten children. Because her family had little money, she picked cotton, plums, and pecans to help out. Her natural athletic ability showed itself early on. At Monroe Street Elementary School, she roughhoused, ran and jumped with the boys. Though she was spanked repeatedly by her parents to discourage her athletic play, Coachman endured and once in high school earned a place on the track team. "Back then," Coachman recalled in a New York Times interview, "there was a sense that women weren't supposed to be running like that. My father wanted his girls to be dainty, sitting on the front porch."

But the front porch was no place for a talented athlete like Coachman. After a short tenure at the local high school, she attracted the attention of recruiters from the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, a refuge for women's track and field. As a spectator sport, track and field had generated little interest in the United States. To compensate, Major Cleveland Abbot developed a series of races, known as the Tuskegee Relays, which served as a venue for African-American girls in the southern U.S. to compete. The relays also benefited the institute as coaches recruited talented new athletes to participate in its summer track program.

I was good at three things: running, jumping, and fighting.

—Alice Coachman

The institute's recruitment strategy paid off; beginning in 1937, the Tuskegee Institute began to dominate women's track and field in the United States and would continue to do so for the next 20 years. That domination would not have been possible without Alice Coachman. After a heated family debate, she was finally granted permission by her parents to enroll at Tuskegee High School in 1939. During her seven-year tenure at Tuskegee, she played basketball, and was an all-conference guard who led her team to three straight Southeastern Intercollegiate Athletic Association (SIAC) women's titles. Coachman's real strength, however, was in track and field. She would win 25 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) championships, including the U.S. Out-door 50 meters (from 1943 to 1947), the 100 meters (1942, 1945 and 1946), the indoor 50 meters (1945 and 1946), and the high jump (from 1939 to 1948).

The high jump was Coachman's specialty. Using a combination of forms—part straight jump, part western roll—she dominated the competition in an event that is uniquely challenging for athletes. The high jump requires athletes to convert horizontal momentum to a vertical momentum in attempts to clear an ever increasing height. The event's apparatus consists of a bamboo or aluminum crosspiece called the bar, which rests across two upright poles called standards. As Coachman cleared the bar, she was often photographed on her side, a position reminiscent of the western-roll style of jumping, but her approaching run and takeoff utilized elements of the straight jump.

After graduating with her high school diploma in 1943, Coachman remained at the Tuskegee Institute to earn a trade degree in dressmaking and continue competing in track-and-field events. During this period, she worked part-time as a waitress at the Gordon Hotel. She received her degree in 1946. That same year, she became the only African-American woman named to the U.S. National Amateur Athletic Union Team. Because of her race, Coachman was studied closely by the public and the organizers of the competition. According to Michael Davis, author of Black American Women in Olympic Track and Field, one newspaper reported: "Miss Coachman was under careful scrutiny before being selected to go on the trip. The committee found her to be quiet, ladylike, reserved and most desirable. In addition to athletic prowess, she's a fine person to know on and off the track." In the U.S.-Canada meet, she won the 100 meters and ran the last leg of the 400-meter relay team. She also continued her dominance in the high jump, taking first place.

In 1947, Coachman entered Albany State College. Her amazing string of AAU championships had made her well known on the women's track-and-field circuit. When it was announced that the Olympic Games were to be held in London, England, after an 11-year hiatus (the 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games were cancelled because of World War II), Alice Coachman was among the foremost Tuskegee alumni to compete in the Olympic trials held in Providence, Rhode Island, at Brown University. The high jump trials were conducted in near darkness. She resorted to tying a white handkerchief on the high jump bar to mark the distance she had to clear. As officials lit matches so she could see, Coachman, who was suffering from a sore back, soared over the bar setting a new American Olympic trials record of 5′4¾″. That record would not be broken until the Olympic trials of 1960.

Despite her joy at winning the trials, Coachman was distressed by the thought of overseas travel. Boarding the SS America to sail for London, she was homesick. Her coach selected 14-year-old Mae Faggs , an energetic member of the team, to be her bunkmate, which improved her spirits. During the voyage, Coachman and the U.S. team were entertained by well-known celebrities, but they also charmed the other passengers with their own program. Coachman danced to the "St. Louis Blues," while other team members harmonized.

The singing and dancing ended when they arrived in London. The track-and-field competition was fierce, and the team from America saw their best athletes eliminated in heat after heat. The competition was dominated by Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands, a 30-year-old mother of two, who won the 80-meter hurdles, the 100 and 200 meters, and ran the winning anchor on the 400-meter relay team. The best the U.S. team had been able to eke out was a bronze medal won by Audrey Patterson-Tyler in the 200 meters. When it came time for the high jump competition, Coachman, America's best hope for bringing home a gold medal, had her work cut out for her. In a preliminary jump, she had suffered a hip injury. Once competition was underway, every time she cleared a new height the European women came back and matched it. She would later recall her victory over Dorothy Tyler as the toughest of her career. Reflecting on her gold-medal performance, Coachman told

Essence magazine, "It all came together and I was so glad. When I got to England my picture was everywhere, and everyone seemed to know all about me. All those people were waiting to see the American girl run, and I gave them something to remember me by." Standing on the Olympic platform, she received her medal before a stadium full of spectators, which included King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (Bowes-Lyon) . Hers was the only gold medal of the games for the U.S. women's track and field team. It was also the first Olympic gold medal ever won by an African-American woman.

When she returned to the States, Coachman was taken to the White House to meet President Harry S. Truman. She then continued home to Albany, Georgia, where an Alice Coachman Day was scheduled to honor her accomplishment. The parade from Atlanta to Albany would culminate in an indoor ceremony. Along the route, thousands stood shoulder to shoulder to cheer Coachman as her car passed. Reporters from Life and Time as well as Movietone News covered her homecoming. But in the Georgia of the 1940s, the honoring of a black champion, even an athlete as remarkable as Coachman, could not take place without prejudice. Marion E. Jackson wrote in his sports column for the Atlanta Daily World:

Let me write now that until the parade terminated at the auditorium, Georgia had seen democracy in action. It was not a homecoming for a Negro Olympic star, but a champion of champions. As I watched the faces of thousands of Georgians from all over the state it was interesting to note, that all of their prejudices, preferences, passions and hates were momentarily swept from their countenances as if a heavy rainstorm had drenched a mountainous street. They came to applaud, cheer and praise an agile, slim and speedy star whose flying feet had brought her acclaim not only from her home state, but from the forums of the world. And then my dream was shattered. Reality returned and I knew that Georgia would not make Alice's welcome a wholehearted one. Mayor James W. "Taxi" Smith droned on about Georgia's other Olympic Champion (Forrest "Spec" Towns who had won the 110-meter hurdles in the 1936 Olympics). He never shook her hand nor did he look at her. Alice never got a chance to speak.

Albany's Municipal Auditorium was segregated. The stage where Alice Coachman sat was separated in the middle by a baby grand piano. On one side sat the mayor and other prominent white members of the community, while the Olympic hero sat on the other side with other African-American dignitaries. It is rumored that two white women surreptitiously handed Coachman a dozen American beauty roses before melting back into the crowd to avoid being recognized. If Coachman was bitter, she didn't show it to the outside world.

After the celebrations and acclamation died down, Coachman hung up her track shoes and quietly retired. "I had accomplished what I wanted to do," she told The New York Times. "It was time for me to start looking for a husband. That was the climax. I won the gold medal. I proved to my mother, my father, my coach and everybody else that I had gone to the end of my rope."

Coachman graduated from Albany State College in 1949 with a degree in home economics and a minor in science. She went on to marry and divorce Frank Davis and raise two children. In addition to teaching physical education at Albany State, she worked at South Carolina State College and her old alma mater, Tuskegee High School. Coachman also worked for a number of social-service programs, including the Turner Job Corporation, which encourages high school athletes who drop out to return to school. "Most of the kids I teach will never get a gold medal," she said. "But, if by example I can help turn one of them around, that will be my greatest reward."

She also founded her own organization, The Alice Coachman Foundation, which aided former Olympic athletes who hit hard times. A private person, Coachman spoke to school groups but kept out of the public eye, not sharing her personal archives with anyone, except her daughter and son. She has made some of her memorabilia available for an exhibit presented by Avon entitled "The Olympic Women," displayed at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. "When the going gets tough and you feel like throwing your hands in the air," she told an interviewer for The New York Times, "listen to that voice that tells you 'Keep going. Hang in there.' Guts and determination will pull you through."

sources:

Bernstein, Margaret E. "That Championship Season," in Essence. Vol. 15. July 1984, p 56.

Davis, Michael D. Black American Women in Olympic Track and Field. Jefferson: McFarland, 1992.

"Great Olympic Moments," in Ebony. Vol. 47, no. 1. November 1990, p 44.

Hickok, Ralph. The Encyclopedia of North American Sports History. NY: Facts on File, 1992.

Hine, Darlene C., ed. Black Women in American: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn: Carlson, 1993.

Jackson, Tenley A. "Olympic Mind Power," in Essence. Vol. 15. July 1984, p 63.

Page, James A. Black Olympian Medalists. Englewood, NJ: Libraries Unlimited, 1991.

Rhoden, William C. "Good Things Happen for One Who Waits," in The New York Times. April 27, 1995.

Smith, Jessie Carney, ed. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

"Tuskegee Girl Beats Stella Walsh in Track," in Chicago Tribune. July 1, 1945.

collections:

Photographs and news clippings of Alice Coachman are available in the Fisk University Library, Special Collections, Nashville, Tennessee.

related media:

"Black Olympians: 1904–1984—Athletics and Social Change in America," part of the "America: A Cultural Mosaic" series, published by Modern Education Video Network (includes a brief look at Coachman).

"Sports Profile," Nguzo Saba Films, produced by Carol Munday Lawrence ; directed by Robert N. Zagone, released by Beacon Films, 1982 (looks at life and career of Coachman).

Gaynol Langs , Independent Scholar, Redmond, Washington

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Coachman, Alice (1923—)

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