Champions and Change Makers

By Stephanie Iovieno
Updated: February 18, 2005

East Meadow, NY—Trailblazers. Pioneers. Leaders. Breaking down barriers of race and gender, these 10 black female sports figures redefined the role of women in sports and laid the foundation for future generations. In honor of Black History Month, we celebrate their groundbreaking achievements and honor their contributions.

Alice Coachman –

Pioneer for black female athletes in all sports

Growing up in the segregated South during the 1920s and ’30s, Alice Coachman was denied access to public facilities and forced to run barefoot in the streets. With the little opportunity she was given, Coachman took it and ran with it — literally. Overcoming racial segregation, Coachman went on to win 25 AAU track titles and numerous national championships at Tuskegee Institute, mostly in the long jump. However, her greatest achievement came in 1948 in London when she became the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal. By breaking the race barrier for women, Coachman opened the door for the future black female track stars, including some of the greats, like Wilma Rudolph, Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

Dominique Dawes –

Three-time Olympic medalist

As a young girl, Women’s Sports Foundation President Dominique Dawes spent hours at the gym in order to achieve her dream of winning an Olympic medal. Her hard work paid off — big time. In 1988, she became the first African-American on the U.S. national gymnastics team, and in 1992, the first on the U.S. Olympic gymnastics team. In 1996, Dawes reached another milestone, winning an individual bronze medal in the floor exercises — the first black to earn an individual Olympic medal in women’s gymnastics. She earned an Olympic gold medal the same year, as the U.S. women’s gymnastics team won the team event in Atlanta. In a career of firsts, Dawes inspired a generation and set the stage for today’s black gymnasts.

Anita DeFrantz –

Highest-ranking female Olympic official

Anita DeFrantz didn’t have much exposure to sports until a chance meeting with the rowing coach while attending Connecticut College led her to join the school’s rowing team. Three years later, she won the bronze medal as the U.S. rowing team captain at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. But what sets DeFrantz apart from her athletic counterparts is her experience as a high-ranking Olympic official. In 1992, she became the first African-American and the first American woman to serve on the International Olympic Committee. In 1997, she was named the first female vice president of the IOC executive committee. During her tenure with the Olympic Committee, DeFrantz has been a champion for multiple causes, most notably equity for women’s sports.

Teresa Edwards –

Five-time Olympian in basketball

photo credit to Tony Feder/Getty Images

A member of 22 different USA Basketball teams, Teresa Edwards enjoyed the greatest success on the biggest stage at the Olympic Games. Edwards is the first and only American basketball player, male or female, to compete in five Olympic Games. The three-time USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year has an unprecedented Olympic record of 158-3. And even though she was a rookie in the WNBA at age 38, Edwards has played with the energy of a teenager. With four Olympic gold medals and more than 20 years of basketball experience as a player and coach (ABL) at varying levels of competition, Edwards has contributed as a leader on and off the court.

Vonetta Flowers –

Olympic gold medalist in the bobsled

Vonetta Flowers always dreamed of winning an Olympic gold medal in track and field. A seven-time All-American at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Flowers failed to make the 2000 U.S. Olympic team as a long jumper. With the encouragement of her husband, Flowers took another road to Olympic gold — in the bobsled. After training for nearly three years in the bobsled, Flowers became the first African-American, male or female, to win a gold medal at the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

Althea Gibson

Broke the color barrier in tennis and golf

Arthur Ashe. Zina Garrison. The Williams sisters. Would we even know these names if it wasn’t for Althea Gibson? Growing up on welfare in Harlem, Gibson raised money through donations to become a member of the Harlem Cosmopolitan Tennis Club. By 1942, Gibson won the girls’ singles event at the American Tennis Association’s New York state tournament. After furthering her education at Florida A&M University, Gibson educated the nation in 1950 by becoming the first African-American — male or female — to play in the U.S. Open. A year later, she was the first African-American to play at Wimbledon. Gibson finished her career with 11 Grand Slam singles and doubles titles. She broke down barriers in both the white-privileged sports of tennis and golf, becoming the first black on the LPGA Tour. Gibson’s groundbreaking actions not only transformed a segregated sports world, but they changed a segregated society.

Robin Roberts –

Award-winning sports journalist

Robin Roberts is a pioneer with a different role in the world of sports. In 1990, Roberts became the first on-air African-American female sports reporter at ESPN. Co-anchoring “SportsCenter,” Roberts made a name for herself as one of the best sports reporters in her profession. After just a month at ESPN, she became the first woman to host an NFL-pre-game show when she filled in for a male anchor. After 12 years at ESPN covering the WNBA, the Olympic Games and college basketball, Roberts moved to ABC to join the team at “Good Morning, America.” She is a former member of the Foundation’s advisory board and was honored with the Billie Jean King Contribution Award for her significant contributions to the development and advancement of women’s sports in 2004. A three-time Emmy winner, Roberts has single-handedly redefined the face of sports broadcasting at the highest levels.

Wilma Rudolph –

Three-time Olympic gold medalist

Wilma Rudolph was no stranger to adversity in sports or life. As a child, she suffered from double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio, which caused her to lose the use of her left leg. At age nine, she was able to walk without the metal leg brace. A basketball standout in high school, Rudolph was recruited to run track for Tennessee State University. The rest is history — Olympic history that is. Rudolph went on to win three Olympic gold medals in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. With these victories, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field in one Olympic Games.

C. Vivian Stringer –

Legendary women’s basketball coach

The ‘C’ in C.Vivian Stringer’s name doesn’t stand for competitor, but it might as well. In her 33 years as a head coach, Stringer has led three college basketball programs out of oblivion and into the spotlight. She is the first and only coach, male or female, to lead three Division I schools — Rutgers, Iowa and Cheyney — to the Final Four. She joined an elite group earlier this season, becoming only the fourth women’s college basketball coach to tally 700 career victories. In addition to her collegiate success, Stringer won an Olympic gold medal as an assistant coach of the U.S. national women’s basketball team in 2004. This season at Rutgers, Stringer led her then No.14-ranked team to wins over three top-10 teams within one week — the first time that has happened in women’s college basketball history. And with Rutgers currently at 19-5 overall (as of Feb. 17), Stringer may be making another trip to the Final Four in March.

Lynette Woodard –

All-time leading scorer in women’s college basketball

A four-time All-American at Kansas, Lynette Woodard is the all-time leading scorer in women’s college basketball history with 3,649 points. She dominated the women’s college game with an ability to play every position on the floor, and she was the first female elected to the school’s athletic hall of fame. Woodard co-captained the first gold-medal-winning U.S. women’s basketball team at the 1984 Olympic Games. In 1985, she became the first woman to play on an all-male professional basketball team with the Harlem Globetrotters. She also contributed her basketball expertise as an assistant coach for five years at her alma mater. Already a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, Woodard is a pioneer for women’s sports and will be rewarded for her contributions in June when she is inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame.