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Alice Coachman, first black female Olympic medalist, dies at 90

Alice Coachman of Albany, Ga., clears the bar

Alice Coachman of Albany, Ga., clears the bar at 5 feet to win the running high jump in the Women's National Track Meet in Grand Rapids, Iowa on July 8, 1948. Credit: AP

Alice Coachman, whose 1948 Olympic high jump title made her the first black woman to win an Olympic medal, opening a door to far more widely known champions such as Wilma Rudolph and Jackie-Joyner Kersee, died Monday in her Albany, Georgia, hometown. She was 90.

As an athlete from an earlier time, Coachman was raised under systematic segregation. "We'd tie rags together and have somebody hold it on each side," she said. That was her high-jump crossbar as a child, in the middle of the dirt roads of rural southern Georgia during the Depression, when her entire family picked cotton on a plantation. That was years before Coachman won the high jump at the 1948 London Olympics.

She at last began to receive overdue attention when the 1996 Olympics went to her home state -- to Atlanta, the first time for the Games in a predominantly black city -- at which time Coachman noted the dramatically improved equipment in modern high jumping. "The pits they have now -- I could go to sleep in them," she said.

Coachman was born Nov. 9, 1923, in Albany. She and her nine siblings helped her parents pick cotton, bringing in 50 cents for every 100 pounds worth, at the times when her father wasn't off to Ohio to work temporarily as a plasterer or her mother wasn't toiling in town as a maid. Another of Alice's jobs was "to stay home and keep the baby."

But there always was a little time for "running and jumping," Coachman said. "My mother always would send me on the errands because she knew I'd come back in a hurry; I was fast."

The white children had a YMCA and school teams; the black children "would just play in the road. Whites would play golf. If we found a golf ball, we'd get some rags and keep wrapping it till we had a softball. Any stick would do as a bat. I guess I was 9 or 10 when I first tried high jump."

Right away, a neighbor remarked to Coachman's mother, "Evelyn, that gal's going to jump over the moon one of these days." Her mother replied, "Yeah, and she's gonna break her neck, too."

If anybody had told Coachman that playing in the roads "would lead me to the Olympics, I'd never have believed it," she said. "We didn't even know what the Olympics was all about. All we knew was that you'd throw things and jump over things."

Her first big leap was from competition at the national track championships as a high school senior to being invited to Alabama's Tuskegee Institute, an established track power, on a "working scholarship." She cleaned the school's gym and pool, sewed football uniforms and rolled the tennis courts in exchange for board and tuition -- and started a 10-year run as national high jump champion.

The next huge jump was winning the Olympic gold.

"King George of England awarded me my medal," Coachman said. "All the history books we read, about the king and queen of England -- how many young girls ever get a chance to shake the king's hand?"

She met French President Charles de Gaulle in Paris on a post-Olympic tour of Western Europe, demonstrating how she won the gold. She came home to meet President Harry S. Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt, had Count Basie throw a victory party for her and a teammate in his basement, got a parade in her hometown and a ceremony at the Albany auditorium -- where blacks and whites sat separately.

Anonymously, some whites sent her congratulatory gifts, and Coca-Cola showed up at the high school, where she had begun a long career teaching physical education and coaching, to take her picture for a billboard campaign alongside Jesse Owens. That made Coachman the first black woman ever paid to endorse an international product.

Among old acquaintances, Olympic gold medalist Coachman's presence merely evoked the familiar "There go ol' Alice," she said. She went about teaching "eight gym classes -- and we had no gym" -- and coaching basketball. Her general obscurity was such that tennis great Arthur Ashe was disappointed to learn, early in Joyner-Kersee's career, that she never had heard of Coachman.

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