In the Feb. 18th issue of “The Current,” I discussed the role black athletes have had in the history of sports. The Black History Month celebration continues now with a look at some of the most famous black female athletes in sports history. These women have proudly represented not only their race but their gender, sport and country.
When racism and prejudice were widespread in sports and society, Gibson was considered to be the female Jackie Robinson. She was the first player to cross the color barrier of professional tennis in 1956. That same year, she became the first person of color to win a Grand Slam title, the French Open. The following year, she won Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals, later called the U.S Open. She won the career doubles grand slam by winning all-four of the major events throughout her career.
Gibson was voted Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press in 1957 and 1958. Even before Ernie Ladd, Deion Sanders, and Bo Jackson, Gibson showed that an athlete could play two sports professionally at the same time, when she became the first black player to compete on the women’s professional golf tour. Gibson opened up the door for other black female athletes to chase their goals in any sports field.
Florence Griffith Joyner
Also called Flo-Jo, Joyner was known as the fastest women of all time because of her stellar performances at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. She won one silver and three gold medals and set records in the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints. Her records in those sprints still stand to this day and have never been threatened.
Joyner retired from competitive track and field after her Olympic triumph. In 1998, at the of 38, she died in her sleep of an epileptic seizure. Flo Jo is an inspiration to all black female athletes with Olympic aspirations.
Daughter of “The Greatest of All-Time” Muhammad Ali, Laila Ali was also a professional boxer from 1999 to 2007. Her father was not happy with her decision to enter such a “dangerous sport,” but Leila reassured him she wouldn’t be fighting men, only women, and that she possessed her father’s genes, so there was nothing to worry about.
In 2001, she was the first female headliner of a boxing pay-per-view. She had her first title match in 2002, when she fought and defeated Suzette Taylor for the IBF title. Ali fought Christy Martin, thought to be the most successful and prominent female boxer in the U.S., in 2003, and won decisively by knockout in the fourth round. When Ali retired from boxing in 2007, she was still undefeated at 27-0.
After her fighting career was over, Ali made many appearances on reality TV shows, including a remake of the 90s hit show “American Gladiators.” She has also co-authored a children’s motivational book called “Reach!
Finding Strength, Spirit, and Personal Power.” Ali knocked down the wall of inequality for women to be involved in power and performance sports like boxing and mixed martial arts.
At the tender age of 16, Douglas won the team all-around gold medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics. She later won the gold medal in the individual all-around, becoming the first black female gymnast to do so. She is also the first American gymnast to win both the team and individual all-around gold at the same Olympics.
When Douglas was 14, she moved from Virginia Beach to Des Moines, Iowa, to train under Liang Chow, the former coach of 2007 World Champion and 2008 Summer Olympics gold medalist Shawn Johnson. This was the type of heart and dedication that Douglas showed to become to best in her sport. She proved age doesn’t prevent someone from being an innovator; teenagers can be role models in sports.
At the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Flowers was the first black athlete to win a gold medal at any Winter Olympics. She won the gold medal in the two-person bobsledding event with teammate Jill Bakken.
Originally a sprinter and long jumper at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Flowers turned to bobsledding after several failed attempts to make the U.S. Summer Olympic team.
She retired from competition after a sixth-place finish in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, after carving out her place in history on the icy tracks of the Olympics.
Considered by many to be the greatest female basketball player of all time, even by her Hall of Fame brother Reggie Miller. She was the first player to be named an All-American by Parade magazine four times. During her senior year, she scored 105 points in a single game.
At the University of Southern California, Miller led the Trojans to NCAA titles in 1983 and 1984 and was named NCAA Tournament MVP both years. Miller was the Naismith College Player of the Year three times during her time in southern California. USC retired her #31 jersey, the first retired jersey of a basketball player at that school.
Miller led the U.S. team to the gold medal at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles and was also part of the gold medal teams at the 1983 Pan American Games in Caracas, Venezuela and 1986 Goodwill Games in Moscow.
After Miller’s playing career ended, due to major knee injuries, she became head coach at USC for two seasons, before coaching the Phoenix Mercury of the WBNA for four seasons.
After resigning from coaching, Miller took a job as a broadcaster for TNT sports. In 1995, she was inducted in the Basketball Hall of Fame and in 1999, she was a part of the inaugural class into the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame. Miller has been involved in every aspect of basketball, transitioning from player to coach to sideline reporter and broadcaster.