It’s inevitable that when a little brown girl tries out for a sport, there will be skepticism. Not necessarily for pursuing athletics—we have long been accepting of women’s sports and teams. The skepticism is usually born from a belief that sports can be no more than a hobby for her. That even if she does pursue it professionally, she will never be as successful—in finances or fame—as her male counterparts. Add to these obstacles the ever present white supremacist thinking that drives mainstream perceptions of what makes a great tennis player, gymnast, or basketball player, and our girls have, as my Nanny used to say, a hard way to go.
In fact, if the statistics regarding how many young boys chasing their dreams of being the next LeBron James or Russell Wilson actually grow up to be multi-million-dollar ballers are low, they are dismal for young girls. Yet, when that same little girl presses pass the haters and naysayers, disregarding the stats, she doesn’t just win games, she dominates! It’s time to celebrate our Black women athletes, the ones of days past who kicked down closed doors and shattered glass ceilings, as well as the present stars who are strutting down those already fiercely blazed trails.
Here is our list of the Top Ten Black Women Athletes of All Time.
1. Serena Williams
We love Serena Williams. Her talent on the court has not gone unnoticed. In 2014, she was named America’s Greatest Athlete by The New Yorker and media often refer to her as the “Queen of the Court.” The flyest woman to ever hold a tennis racket was raised in Compton, CA and is the winner of 6 U.S. Opens and 5 Wimbledons. The Women’s Tennis Association ranked her World No. 1 in singles on six separate occasions between 2002 and 2013. Most recently, she earned her 20th Grand Slam title at the French Open.
2. Althea Gibson
There couldn’t be a Serena without an Althea Gibson. She was the first black athlete to break the color line in international tennis, winning the French Open in 1956, followed by the Wimbledon and what would ultimately become the U.S. Open in 1957—a feat she repeated in 1958. The Associated Press named her the Female Athlete of the year in both 1957 and 1958. In addition to her work on the tennis court, Gibson also played golf professionally. After retiring from the sports world, Gibson had a brief stint as a singer and actor then later became the Athletic Commissioner of New Jersey.
3. Laila Ali
Don’t you just love it when the legacy of a sports legend is passed down to…wait for it…a girl? Yes! With an undefeated record of 24 of 24 matches won including 21 knockouts, Laila Ali has made the alleged insult “fight like a girl” into a bona fide badge of honor. When Ali first decided to pursue boxing, she was met with some pushback from her father Muhammad Ali. Her response? “I’m going to be fighting women, not men. And I have your genetics.” After her 24 wins, Ali retired and has made numerous TV appearances. She is committed to giving back to her community and wrote a motivational book called Reach! Finding Strength, Spirit, and Personal Power that encourages girls to pursue their goals.
4. Alice Coachman
Alice Coachman, who passed away last summer at the age of 90, was the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal. Coachman began turning heads when she broke AAU high school and college records. Specializing in the high jump, the Albany, Georgia native certainly leaped over all the racism thrown her way. Each year between 1939 and 1948, she won a national championship award. In 1948, she was the only American woman to bring home an Olympic gold medal in athletics. And while today we are comfortable seeing our athletes promoting everything from cars to energy bars, Coachman was the first African American woman to endorse an international product, Coca-Cola. Coachman blazed trails for future black track stars like Florence Griffith Joyner.
5. Wilma Rudolph
Calling a woman “fast” before the 60s was usually a way to tear her down by casting judgment on some perceived promiscuity. Enter Wilma Rudolph who, by the 60s, was considered the fastest woman on earth—literally. An amazing feat for this former premature infant who contracted polio as a child and was forced to wear a leg brace for many years. Stepping comfortably into the lane held down by Alice Coachman a generation before, Rudolph was the first Black woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic games. In both 1960 and 1961, she was named the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year. Rudolph went on to a long career as an educator, track coach, and sports commentator after the end of her professional track career. In 2004, the United States Postal Service honored Rudolph with a ‘Distinguished American’ stamp.
6. Sheryl Swoopes
One cannot have a discussion about the greatest basketball player of all time without talking about Michael Jordan and yet, Swoopes, often called the “female Michael Jordan” should very well be a contender. The first player signed to the WNBA, she has won three Olympic gold medals, is a three-time WNBA MVP, and remains on every top WNBA player list ever made. Prior to her work in the WNBA, Swoopes made waves at Texas Tech, where she set several school records. The Brownfield, Texas native scored 955 points in the 1992–93 season and also had three triple-doubles and twenty-three double-doubles during her time on the team. Swoopes is currently the head coach of the women’s basketball team at Loyola University Chicago.
7. Dominique Dawes
Who didn’t love watching “Awesome Dawesome”?! A phenomenal gymnast, Dawes was a 10-year member of the U.S. national gymnastics team and member of the gold-winning 1996 Olympic team in Atlanta. She’s also the first Black woman to win an individual Olympic medal in artistic gymnastics. Between 2004 and 2006, Dawes served as president of the Women’s Sports Federation and in 2010, she was named a co-chair for the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. Today, Dawes is rocking out as a gymnastics coach and motivational speaker.
8. Florence Griffith Joyner
Before our girl Serena even knew what it meant to be “fly,” Flo-Jo was setting fire to tracks and fields with long, painted nails, cherry red lip game, and thick, gorgeous hair floating behind her. “[Florence Griffith Joyner] was someone who wanted to make a fashion statement, as well as do it while running so fast you could barely see the fashion,” said Phil Hersh on ESPN Classic’s SportsCentury series. Taking the baton from Wilma Rudolph, Flo-Jo is considered the fastest woman of all time. In 1985, she won the 100m at the IAAF Grand Prix Final with the time of 11.00 seconds. Her records, set back in 1988 in the 100m and 200m, have yet to be broken. Sadly, our beloved Flo-Jo left us entirely too soon, dying from an epileptic seizure in 1998.
9. Vonetta Flowers
What y’all know about that bobsled life? Flowers makes this list because after years as a track and field athlete—she was a star sprinter and long jumper at the University of Alabama—she was able to shift gears like only a sister can. Taking up bobsledding paid off tremendously for this Birmingham native, as she is the first black person to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics, winning a gold medal in 2002. Flowers returned to the Winter Games in 2006 with the U.S. bobsled team and finished sixth overall. She also provided a gold-medal performance at the World Cup. In 2011, she was inducted into the Alabama Hall of Fame.
10. Debi Thomas
If you are of a certain age, you might remember rooting for Thomas, partially because she was dope but mostly because you may have never seen a black woman figure skater. A 1984 World champion, two-time US champion, and Olympic bronze medalist, Thomas was inducted into the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2000. After retiring from cutting up her competition on the ice, Thomas was boss enough to do another kind of cutting of folks—as an orthopedic surgeon.
So who did we miss? Let us know in comments who you think was or is the best of the best.
Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts is a freelance writer and educator whose work has appeared in numerous publications online and in print. Visit her online at www.traceymlewis.com.