Black History Month

Then And Now: Black Sporting Pioneers

Rachel Roberts 

In the second of a 2-part series, Rachel Roberts highlights the careers of trailblazing Black athletes and those who are following in their footsteps in today’s game. Part 2 focuses on American women stamping their mark on history.

Grand Slam Champion and A Future Star: Althea Gibson & Coco Gauff

Althea Gibson was the first Black tennis player to win the French Open (1956), Wimbledon (1957-58) and the US Open (1957-58) singles titles. She won her first tournament in 1942 and championed at the American Tennis Association’s Women’s singles championship in 1947, a title she would hold for 10 years. Gibson made history as the first Black player to be invited to play at Wimbledon in 1951.

The Associated Press voted her Female Athlete of the Year

With her success in 1957 she also won the US Open’s mixed doubles and the Australian Open’s women’s doubles that same year. The Associated Press voted her Female Athlete of the Year, making her the first African-American to receive the honour, one which she retained in 1958.

After working her way up to be the number 1 amateur in the world, she turned professional in later that year, but there were few tournaments and prizes available. Therefore, she also took up professional golf in 1964 and was the first Africa-American member of the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

A true pioneer, Althea Gibson paved the way for stars of Venus and Serena Williams, and for the bright, young talents of the future, such as Coco Gauff.

At age 15, Coco Gauff marked her name on the tennis scene when she knocked out Venus Williams in the opening round of Wimbledon in 2019. Venus, alongside her sister Serena, have been cited by Gauff as her tennis idols, whose ‘tenacity and fearlessness’ made her want to become a professional tennis player. Her tournament at Wimbledon was a highlight of the competition, as captivated crowds followed her all the way to her fourth-round exit.

Gauff won her first Women’s Tennis Association singles title at the 2019 Linz Open, which made her the youngest singles-title holder on the tour since 2004. She is the youngest player in the Top 100 WTA rankings, with a career high of number 49 for singles tennis, and 42 in the doubles game. At such a young age, there is much to look forward to as her career progresses.

US Gymnastics Torchbearers: Dominique Dawes & Simone Biles

Dominique Dawes made gymnastics history as the first African-American to make the women’s US team for the 1988 Olympics, and then again as the first African-American to win an individual medal in women’s gymnastics at the 1996 Games. She was also a part of the gold medal-winning team – the ‘Magnificent Seven’, who were the first US women’s team to win gold at an Olympic Games.

This was the pinnacle of a highly successful career: Dawes won all-round gold at the National Championships in 1994, as well as gold in all 4 individual events (vault, uneven bars, beam and floor), which made her the first gymnast to win all 5 gold medals since 1969.

Dawes also became the first US gymnast to be a member of 3 separate medal-winning gymnastics teams (she was part of the 1992 US Olympic artistic gymnastics team which won bronze), after the Chinese team from the 2000 Olympics was stripped of its medal, boosting the US up to bronze, albeit a whole 10 years after the games. She was entered into the USA Gymnastics’ Hall of Fame in 2005.

At the Rio Olympics Simone Biles established herself as the dominant gymnast, a globally recognisable athlete who launched herself into history by becoming the first female US gymnast to win 4 gold medals at a single Games.

She is the most decorated American gymnast of all-time, and the 3rd most decorated gymnast in the world.

Prior to 2016, she was already a star. She was the first African-American woman to claim the World All-Round title in 2013, and retained that title in both 2014 and 2015. She won the Championship again in 2018 and 2019, making her a five-time World All-Round Champion, as well as a five-time World floor, three-time World beam, and two-time World vault champion – that’s 15 World Championships to her name.

Biles has a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship medals – she is the most decorated American gymnast of all-time, and the 3rd most decorated gymnast in the world. She is only 22.

This brings us to the end of the two-part series. Head here to read more on the topic of Black History Month.

Rachel Roberts

Featured image used courtesy of Carine06 via Flickr. No changes were made to this image. Image use license here.

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