Albany native Alice Coachman, the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal, died Monday at the age of 90.
ALBANY — Albany native Alice Coachman, the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal, died Monday at the age of 90.
Coachman suffered a stroke three months ago and passed away Monday morning in Albany. She initially attended Tuskegee University but later graduated from Albany State College after returning from the 1948 Olympics in London, where she won a gold medal in the high jump.
To go along with her gold medal, Coachman won 10 consecutive U.S. titles in the high jump; won collegiate national championships in the 50, 100 and as a member in the 400-meter relay; has been inducted into nine halls of fame; and was named to five All-American teams.
She is honored each year at Albany State University with the annual Alice Coachman Invitational track meet, which has been held since 1992.
“We, the members of the ASU athletic department, are saddened to hear of the recent loss of the late, great Alice Coachman,” ASU Athletic Director Richard H. Williams said. “Her dedication to the field of sports is matchless. Although she will sorely be missed, her achievements outside the fields of competition are on par with the great accomplishments within the athletics lines. We will continue to honor her legacy within the athletic department at Albany State University.”
Two years ago, Coachman was honored during ASU’s homecoming and said she loved “everything about Albany and Albany State.”
“Everyone feels like kin to me here,” she told The Herald in 2012. “They are my folks.”
Coachman, who has Alice Coachman Elementary School in Albany named in her honor, qualified for the Olympics in 1940, ’44 and ’48 but because of World War II only competed in the 1948 Games in London — but it was there, at the age of 25, where her leap of 5-foot-6 broke the Olympic record and gave her a gold medal.
After returning to Albany 66 years ago, Coachman was honored during a presentation by then-Herald publisher James Gray, who gave a speech praising Coachman and her athletic success. According to a 1948 Herald article, Coachman said after the ceremony that she was “happier now than when I won.”
Coachman, who was born Nov. 9, 1923, in Albany to Fred and Evelyn Coachman, was the fifth of 10 children and often told stories of how she had to train without track and field facilities and faced great racial obstacles in the days before civil rights legislation.
In a section of a recently-released children’s book “Touch the Sky” that chronicles the life of Coachman, it is explained how Coachman and her fellow Tuskegee teammates were forced to have their meals “on the roadside” and had to improvise bathroom facilities when they traveled because white-owned restaurants refused them admittance.
Coachman found a way to rise above the obstacles and became an inspiration to many, including former Albany State professor, Director of Athletics and Dean for College Education Wilburn Campbell, who knew Coachman for years and called her a friend.
“She is going to be missed, there’s no doubt about that,” Campbell said. “She was a very, very nice person, inside and out. She loved to engage with the younger people, and one of the things I quite often reflect on was that on several occasions she would interact with the students at ASU, and they were able to find out about her Olympic experience and how that actually materialized.”
Campbell and former ASU track and field coach Willie Laster started the Alice Coachman Invitational track meet 23 years ago.
“She was very important to us,” Laster said, referring to the ASU track and field program. “She inspired my girls when she came to town and would talk to them about track and life.
“One of the things she would always say was to never give up and always believe in yourself and never let anybody put you down. She would tell them to work hard and train hard and never give up, and that’s what stuck with those girls.”
Like anybody who knew Coachman, Laster also considered her a friend.
“I will always remember her and what she did and the impact she had on the students, athletics and the community,” Laster said. “I will always remember the kind of person she was. She was easy to talk to. Every time you met her, it was like meeting your favorite aunt. She was that kind of person.”
Coachman often attended the track and field invitational named after her, and current Rams track coach Kenneth Taylor said it was a pleasure to see her interacting with fans with her ”beautiful smile.”
“It’s good to pay tribute to someone who had the accomplishments she did back during a time when women weren’t the highlight of track and field, and more importantly black women weren’t a highlight in track and field,” Taylor said before a recent Alice Coachman Invitational. “And even more importantly, she went to nations where women and black women weren’t important in track and field and had the accomplishments she did. That’s what makes me feel good about the opportunity to do this meet in her name.”