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Alice Coachman Made High Jump Into History

By Karen Rosen | July 15, 2014, 10:08 p.m. (ET)

Sports broadcaster Jon Naber speaks to 1948 Olympic gold medalist Alice Coachman during the Team USA Road to London 100 Days Out Celebration in Times Square on April 18, 2012 in New York City.

Editor’s Note: Alice Coachman, the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal, died Monday at the age of 90 after suffering a stroke in April. TeamUSA.org contributing writer Karen Rosen filed a report on the high jump champion as part of a series in 2012 on Americans who competed at the 1948 Olympic Games. 

Alice Coachman’s first high jump crossbars were rags tied together above a dirt road in Albany, Georgia. From that ignoble start, she launched herself into history.

Coachman became the first African-American woman to win an Olympic gold medal – and  the only woman from the United States to be crowned Olympic champion in track & field – at the London 1948 Olympic Games.

Looking back on the 1948 Games, the first memory that comes to Coachman’s mind is a royal one.

“I just think about the King,” she said of British monarch George VI. “He was the one that awarded me my medal, so I think about him and his children. The queen now – she wasn’t married then – so she and her sister were at the Games.”

Queen Elizabeth II was in attendance at the 2012 Olympic Games, and Coachman had considered making a return to London for those Games as well.

Coachman longed for a reunion with her old rival, Dorothy Tyler of Great Britain, who earned the silver medal. Both jumped 5-feet, 6 1/8 inches – an Olympic and American record – then missed at 5-7.

“I didn’t know I had won,” Coachman said. “I was on my way to receive the medal and I saw my name on the board. And, of course, I glanced over into the stands where my coach was and she was clapping her hands.

“(Tyler) had more misses than I had, so that gave it to me.”

Coachman’s victory required fast thinking in addition to her natural ability to dive across the bar in a style that was neither the conventional “Western Roll” nor the “Scissors.”

Coachman said Tyler and some other competitors had taken note of her takeoff point in an effort to copy her success.

“So I moved it back, and they hit the one that I moved back and missed,” she said.

Earlier that year, it seemed like Coachman might miss the Olympic Games altogether. Doctors discovered that she had a tilted uterus and advised her not to compete. But Coachman was determined, knowing she was the only prospect for a gold medal on the U.S. women’s track & field team. She had surgery to insert a rod just before the U.S. Olympic Team boarded the boat.

"I didn't want to let my country down, or my family and school,” she recalled. “Everyone was pushing me, but they knew how stubborn and mean I was, so it was only so far they could push me."

Taking place in post-World War II-ravaged Britain, the 1948 Olympic Games were the first to bring the world together since 1936.

“London really wasn’t ready,” Coachman said.

Coachman said she wasn’t nervous as she entered Wembley Stadium on Aug. 7, 1948. “I had been with the All-American team so many years,” she said, “and, of course, it was just like another meet.”

In case her throat got dry, she had just the cure: lemons.

“The thing about the lemon, there wasn’t a lot of juice,” Coachman said. “You just take the lemon and wash your mouth with it; it’s not like an orange, that you eat it and feel heavy. I didn’t want anything heavy on my stomach to go over that bar.”

She learned her inimitable style by “just jumping with the boys in the street, I guess,” Coachman said with a laugh. “I was so tomboyish, I wanted competition, so I jumped with the boys.”

And did she beat them? “I sure did,” she said.

It was the Depression, and a doctor collecting rents in the neighborhood was impressed by what he saw. He told Coachman’s mother, "Evelyna, that gal's going to jump over the moon one of these days."

"Mama said, 'Yeah, and she's gonna break her neck, too.'"

The boys wanted Coachman on their teams no matter what sport they were playing. Her parents didn’t approve, so she would jump over the back fence.

“I would slip off and go to the playground,” said Coachman, who was the fifth of 10 children. “I got whippings, but I kept going and still getting whippings. I got to the point where I was getting three in a day, one in the morning for my math, one in the afternoon for fighting and one in the afternoon for slipping off.

“I guess when they found out that I was determined to play ball, they just let me go.”

One day Coachman’s father, who believed little girls should sit daintily on the porch when they weren’t doing housework, came by as she was playing softball with the boys. “I was so scared and nervous,” she said. “But he was a baseball fan, so he just stood there and watched me. Then we walked home together.”

Coachman later attracted the attention of coaches at Tuskegee, Alabama, who saw her compete at the national championships. They asked her parents if she could come to the Alabama university on “a five-year plan” that included three years of high school and two years of college.

And that wasn’t all.

“I was to just work in the gym and do whatever we had to do: scrubbing the swimming pool, knitting the socks for the football boys, putting down chairs for the movie and picking them up for class and rolling 250-pound rollers for the tennis court and the track,” she said. “Otherwise, you’d be sent home, and after you get familiar with the group that you’re running with, you just don’t want to be sent home.”

Coachman marveled about the advantages student-athletes have today. “These kids, they don’t do anything now like we did,” she said.

She also squeezed in singing in the school choir, performing with the drill team, playing on the basketball team and beginning a run of 26 national track & field titles, including in the outdoor high jump from 1939-48 and the outdoor 50-meter dash from 1943-47.

For recreation, she swam and played soccer, field hockey, volleyball and tennis. What didn't she play? "Let me see now . . . football," she said.

Coachman's first Olympic Games could have been 1940, but those Games were canceled because of World War II. By 1944, she had reached her peak, but those Games were also cancelled.

In London, she saw her teammates falter, one by one. “All the fast girls we had, they would come in last. It was kind of sad," she said.

Coachman was the last hope for a gold medal, and she came through with flying colors.

The U.S. team was later invited to the home of Lord and Lady Astor.

"She was constantly telling me when I get back to the States, be sure that I teach some of the other kids how to jump,” Coachman said.

Coachman did just that, after a homecoming in which she met President Harry Truman, Eleanor Roosevelt and Count Basie. She was, however, snubbed by the mayor of her own hometown.

A motorcade brought Coachman from Atlanta to Albany, where her mother greeted her and the Florida A&M band played.

“We went to a theater, and of course, being segregated, we were on one side and the whites were on the other side of the stage,” she said. “The mayor, he didn’t shake my hand, and that was what everybody was talking about, how this woman was coming from England with this gold medal and the mayor didn’t shake her hand.

I understood where the mayor stood, but to me, just to be home from across the water was fine with me, just to see my mama.”

Coachman received presents – some sent anonymously because of the racial attitudes of the time – and still treasures two pieces of sterling silver jewelry given to her by a stranger.

In Albany today, a street is named Alice Avenue and her daughter, Evelyn Davis, is a physical education teacher at Alice Coachman Elementary School. Albany State University has a scholarship bearing her name.

Coachman was also a teacher and a coach until she retired. Evelyn and her brother, Richmond, knew Alice was the fastest mom in the neighborhood, but weren’t really aware of her place in history.

“She didn’t really talk about her accomplishments or force that on us,” Evelyn said, “but once or twice a year, she’d sit us down and we’d go though the scrapbook. You’re just young children, so you don’t really understand the importance, but once I got older, then I started realizing just what was what. It really was not easy.

I think about having to run on dirt and not having shoes and not having clothes and still staying focused enough to accomplish what she accomplished. That’s what makes it so great.

Mama calls it guts.”

From that dirt road long ago, Coachman paved the way for champions such as Wilma Rudolph, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Allyson Felix and Sanya Richards-Ross.

“I sure did, I paved the way for all of them,” Coachman said.

Richmond Davis said that many people don’t realize that Coachman came first.

“We’re a very visual nation, and visually the one that comes to mind is still Wilma,” Davis said.  “She was the one that was there during television. I think people forgot about the Tuskegee Ten. They set the tone for all of the things that took place during the 20th century.”

Richmond operates the Alice Coachman Track and Field Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 1994 to help Olympians who are no longer competing. The foundation, based in Akron, Ohio, has a new mission to join projects with school systems, universities, community groups and companies.

After Coachman was rediscovered by the public in the run-up to the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, she was inducted into several hall of fames, including the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

Two children’s books have since been published about the track pioneer: “Queen of the Track: Olympic Champion Alice Coachman,” by Heather Lang and “Touch the Sky: Alice Coachman, Olympic High Jumper,” by renowned author Ann Malaspina.

Coachman’s legacy lives on.

Karen Rosen is an Atlanta-based sportswriter who has covered 14 Olympic Games. She has contributed to TeamUSA.org since 2009.