Honoring Influential African American Female Athletes
The ANNIKA Foundation is dedicated to creating opportunities for girls around the world. With February being Black History Month, it’s a perfect opportunity to highlight African American female athletes who have paved the way for other girls and women to excel in sport. The individuals below have blazed their own trails and inspired countless people around the globe.
A pioneer in both amateur tennis and professional golf, Althea Gibson is as decorated as they come. She began playing tennis at the age of 10 and went on to become the first African American woman to win a Grand Slam (1956). She retired from tennis in 1958 and launched a career in golf becoming the first African American woman to play on the LPGA.
When it comes to golf, it was part of the family business for Renee Powell. Her father, William Powell, was the owner of Clearview Golf Course in Canton, Ohio, the first facility designed, constructed, owned, and operated by an African American. She began playing competitive golf at 12 and became the second African American woman to play on the LPGA. Although her playing days are behind her, Powell has remained one of golf’s greatest advocates for inclusion.
Named by Sports Illustrated as the “Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th Century,” Jackie Joyner-Kersee’s athletic credentials are unrivaled. The track and field legend is a six-time Olympic medalist, including three gold medals. She dominated the heptathlon and long jump across four Olympic Games.
When it comes to women’s basketball legends, Sheryl Swoopes paved the way. She was the first athlete signed when the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) was founded in 1996. During her career, she won three MVP awards, four WNBA championships, and three gold medals at the Olympics. She also was the first women’s player to have a shoe named after her.
The Williams Sisters
Serena and Venus Williams helped bring tennis mainstream and broke boundaries along the way. They became the first two players, male or female, to play in four consecutive Grand Slam singles finals from the 2002 French Open to the 2003 Australian Open. Between 2000 and 2016, they dominated Wimbledon collectively winning 12 singles titles (five for Venus and seven for Serena). The sisters also have four gold medals at the Summer Olympics, the most of any tennis player.
The New Generation
Trailblazers are all around us and history is still being made.
● Laila Ali, daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, became the first woman to headline a pay-per-view boxing event and finished her career with a perfect 24-0 record.
● Gabby Douglas became the first woman of color of any nationality and the first African American gymnast in Olympic history to become the Individual All-Around Champion at the Olympic Games.
● Simone Biles is the most decorated American gymnast and the world’s third-most decorated gymnast of all time.
● Simone Manuel became the first African-American female swimmer to win gold in the 100-meter freestyle when she touched the wall first at the Rio Olympics.
It’s not just athletes; African American women are breaking down barriers in other areas of sport as well. Jennifer King is the first African American woman to become a full-time coach in the National Football League (NFL). Bianca Smith is the first African American female coach in professional baseball, while Aja Smith is the first full-time female African American referee signed to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE).