How do we measure success? Is it the number of medals won, records broken or titles fought for and and defended? Perhaps it’s being the first to break specific ground as an athlete or champion?
Well, for these Black female athletes, it’s a combination of all that and more.
As we continue to celebrate Black History Month 2023, we’re amplifying the ground-breaking, history-making achievements of these legendary women.
1. SERENA WILLIAMS
With 23 Grand Slam titles and a staggering 319 weeks as the world’s best, Williams really needs no introduction.
Competing with her sister, Venus, the dynamic duo picked up three gold doubles medals in consecutive Olympics, starting in 2000 in Sydney. In addition, Williams currently holds the most Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles, combined, and in 2012, she won her first Olympic singles medal. It’s no wonder Williams is often referred to as the GOAT of tennis.
2. SIMONE BILES
At the 2016 Rio Olympics, Biles became the most decorated American gymnast - male or female - of all time. For those keeping count, Biles has four Olympic gold medals, one silver and two 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 - with 15 titles under her belt!
What else? Biles is a seven-time US National all-around champion and has four moves named after her that are officially recognised by the governing body of gymnastics. Pretty impressive if you ask us.
3. ALTHEA GIBSON
Gibson picked up tennis as a teenager, and a year after she started, she won the American Tennis Associations (ATA) local tournament. For 10 consecutive years, she won the ATA’s championship, which was unheard of.
It took a while for Gibson to play at world championship level, due to segregation, and it wasn't until former tennis player, Alice Marble argued her case that she was invited to the US National Championships.
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.
4. ALICE COACHMAN
Coachman reached new heights - literally and figuratively - at the 1948 London Olympic Games, when she became the first Black woman to win an Olympic gold medal in a track and field event. Her winning jump clocked in 1.68m, and her medal was presented by King George VI.
Just four years later, Coachman was signed by Coca-Cola, making her the first Black female athlete to endorse a consumer product.
5. LAILA ALI
As the daughter of boxing legend Muhammad Ali, Ali grew up with some pretty big gloves to fill.
Originally a manicurist, Ali swapped her salon for the boxing ring, and went on to become the first woman to headline a pay-per-view boxing event, where she faced another boxing legacy, Jacqui Frazier-Lyde.
Retiring undefeated in 2007, Ali held the IBA, IWBF, WBC and WIBA female super-middleweight titles, as well as one light heavyweight title.
6. WILMA RUDOLPH
If there’s an achievement Rudolph didn’t accomplish, we’re not aware of it. Diagnosed with double-pneumonia, scarlet fever, and polio at age four, doctors told her she would never walk again - but she did.
At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Rudolph became the first ever American woman to sweep three gold medals at a single Olympic Games, and was coined ‘The Tornado, the fastest woman on earth’. When the track-and-field star returned to her hometown of Clarksville, the city planned a parade for her, but it was segregated. Rudolph refused to participate unless it was integrated, and the town listened.
When asked to give advice to young athletes, Rudolph said: “I remind them the triumph can’t be had without the struggle.”
7. SHERYL SWOOPES
The first player to be signed to the US WNBA (Women’s National Basketball Association), Swoopes picked up - or should we say swooped? - three Olympic gold medals, as well as an NCAA Championship and four WNBA titles over the course of her career.
In 2017, Swoopes was inducted into the Women’s Basketball Hall Of Fame, which only adds to her numerous other accolades, including three-time WNBA MVP.
8. NICOLA ADAMS, OBE
A British national treasure, Adams shot to fame as the first female boxer to become an Olympic Champion in 2012. After that, Adams doubled down, winning a second gold at the Rio 2016 Olympics. At one point, she was reigning Olympic, World and European Games champion at flyweight. Now that’s what you call a knockout career.
Retiring with an undefeated record, Adams won the Sports Personality Award at the British LGBT Awards in 2019, two years after being appointed an OBE for services to boxing.
9. MAGGIE ALPHONSI MBE
An English former rugby union player, Alphonsi holds a multitude of history-making accolades. Representing her country an impressive 74 times, helping England win a record-breaking seven consecutive Six Nations titles and a sixth Grand Slam in seven years, Alphonsi was also a crucial member of the team that won the 2014 Rugby World Cup for the first time in 20 years.
10. FLORENCE GRIFFITH-JOYNER
Nicknamed ‘Flo-Jo’ by the press, Florence Griffith-Joyner is the fastest woman of all time. Her 1988 Olympic 100 metre and 200 metre records obliterated previous times (10.49 and 21.34 seconds respectively), and currently still stand as the fastest times for both events.
With three Olympic golds, two silver medals, one gold World Championship medal and one silver to her name, Flo-Jo was appointed co-chair of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, where she went on to establish her own foundation for children in need. Two years later, in 1995, Joyner was honoured with an induction into the Track and Field Hall of Fame.
11. KHADIJAH MELLAH
The first hijab-wearing jockey to compete in a British horse race, Mellah won the Magnolia Cup in August 2019. Beating 25:1 odds to win on her mount Haverland, she rode to victory at the same time as studying for her A-Levels. In November 2019, Mellah won the Times Young Sportswoman of the Year award.
Originally from Peckham, London, the then 19-year-old was introduced to riding after her mother saw an advertising leaflet in their local mosque.
Inspired by her incredible achievements, the Riding A Dream Academy offers the Khadijah Mellah Scholarship for young riders from diverse backgrounds and under-represented or disadvantaged communities.
12. SHELLY-ANN FRASER-PRYCE, OD
Eight-time Olympic medallist, Fraser-Pryce is the first Caribbean woman to win gold in the 100 metre and one of only three women ever to defend a standing Olympic 100m title. Competing in the 100 and 200 metres events, Fraser-Pryce is also the only sprinter in history (of any gender) to win five World Championship 100 metre titles, as well as being the winner of more global titles than any other female sprinter ever.
These are by no means the only inspirational Black women who have made history in sports, but they are some of the standout athletes who have made significant strides and set examples for athletes to come.