After being introduced to gymnastics “by way of the cartwheel” as a child, Douglas went on to be the first woman of color and the first Black gymnast in Olympic history to be the Individual All-Around Champion. Still, she’s faced her fair share of hurdles over the years — and not just on the mat. “Throughout my career, a lot of people have doubted me,” she previously told Time Magazine. “When someone tells you that you can’t do it, especially when there are multiple people, you start to believe it, and you don’t believe in yourself. It took me about 10 years to figure out how great I was at gymnastics. You have to believe that you’re good enough.”
Coachman reached new heights at the 1948 London Olympic Games, literally and figuratively, when she became the first Black woman to win an Olympic medal in the high jump. Her winning jump clocked in at five feet, six-and-one-eighth inches, and King George VI presented her medal to her. In 1952, Coachman was signed by Coca-Cola, making her the first Black woman athlete to endorse a consumer product.
Gibson picked up tennis as a teenager in Harlem, and a year after she started, she won the American Tennis Association’s (ATA) local tournament. For 10 straight years, she won the ATA’s championship, which was — and still is — unheard of. It took a while for Gibson to play at the world championship level, simply because the sport was segregated. After former tennis player Alice Marble wrote an op-ed arguing for Gibson to get to play, she was invited to the U.S. National Championships. “If Althea Gibson represents a challenge to the present crop of players, then it’s only fair that they meet this challenge on the courts,” Marble wrote. In 1951, Gibson was the first Black tennis player to get invited to Wimbledon, and in 1956, she became the first Black tennis player to ever win a Grand Slam at the French Open.
Thomas challenged the norms of figure skating when she famously wore a black unitard at the Olympics, which the International Skating Union banned. In 1986, she became the first Black woman to win a U.S. Figure Skating Championships title, and in 1988 she was the first Black woman to take home a medal for the United States at the Winter Olympics. Thomas often faced discrimination from judges and the media, who characterized her as angry and overly competitive. “If I say I’m going to do something, I’ll do it,” she told the New York Times in 1998. ”It may be ugly getting there, but I’ll do it. A lot of people think they want to do something, but when the going gets tough, they just don’t have the will to stick with it.”
When the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) was first founded in 1996, Swoopes was the first player to be signed. Swoopes played for the Houston Comets and received three MVP awards from the WNBA, and won the WNBA champs four times. She also took home three gold medals at the Olympics in 1996, 2000, and 2004. Affectionately nicknamed the “Michael Jordan of the WNBA,” Swoopes is the first women’s player to have a shoe named after her.
As the daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, Ali grew up with some big gloves to fill. “He’s naturally going to see himself in me,” she told the New York Times in 1999 about her father. ”But for the first time, I think he actually can see that ‘this is my child.”’ At just 23 years old, she became the first woman to headline a pay-per-view boxing event, when she faced another boxing legacy, Jacqui Frazier-Lyde. Ali retired in 2007 with a 24-0 record and has been working as a television personality ever since.
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Biles became the most decorated American gymnast — male or female — of all time. For those keeping counts, Biles has four Olympic gold medals and one bronze. Since then, she’s continued to crush it on and off the mat. In 2018, she became the most decorated gymnast in world championship history, where she won gold in all four events. What else? Last year, Biles landed the Cheng vault, which is considered one of the most difficult vaults in gymnastics and is typically only done by men. She also was named ESPN the Magazine‘s “Most Dominant Athlete” of 2018. NBD.
From a young phenom playing tennis with her sister in Compton to a mother and fashion icon, Williams is constantly reinventing herself and really needs no introduction. With 23 Grand Slam titles, four Olympic gold medals, and one very adorable daughter, it’s no wonder Williams is often referred to as the GOAT of tennis.
At the Rio Olympics in 2016, Manuel made history when she became the first African-American female swimmer to win gold in the 100m free. Watching the clip of her cinching the victory is still awe-inspiring today. “I would like there to be a day where there are more of us and it’s not Simone, the Black swimmer, because the title Black swimmer makes it seem like I’m not supposed to be able to win a gold medal or I’m not supposed to be able to break records,” she told the New York Times in 2016. “That’s not true, because I work just as hard as anybody else and I love the sport and I want to win just like everybody else.”