Published on February 11th 2010 by Leon Shepherd

In the world of sports, African American women have overcome insurmountable odds to achieve success, fame and fortune. By displaying perseverance, determination and unsurpassed athleticism, they have been able to break through barriers and achieve their goals & dreams. In honor of some of the best female athletes to participate in professional sports, I’ve decided to put together a list of the Top10 greatest African American female athletes of all time. I welcome your thoughts, opinions and comments.

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10. Sheryl Swoopes 1971 -

Sheryl Denise Swoopes is an American professional basketball player who played most recently for the Seattle Storm in the WNBA. She was the first player to be signed in the WNBA when it was created. She has won three Olympic Gold Medals and is a three-time WNBA MVP. Frequently referred to as the “female Michael Jordan,” Swoopes is famous for both her offensive and defensive skills. In 2005, she averaged 18.6 points, 85% free throws, 4.3 assists, 2.65 steals and 37.1 minutes playing time per game. Swoopes is considered “one of the best collegiate players of all time”. As a member of the Houston Comets, she has accumulated over 2,000 career points, 500 career rebounds, 300 career assists and 200 career steals. Her extraordinary scoring and defensive ability have made her the first three-time WNBA MVP (2000, 2002, 2005) and the first three-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year (2000, 2002, 2003). Swoopes is a four-time WNBA champion (1997–2000). Swoopes is the first women’s basketball player to have a Nike shoe named after her: the “Air Swoopes”.[

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9. Cynthia Cooper 1963 - 

Cynthia Lynne Cooper-Dyke is a retired American basketball player who has won championships in college, the Olympics, and in the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA). She is considered by many as one of the greatest women's basketball players ever. She played for the Houston Comets from 1997–2000 and again in 2003. Cooper was voted the WNBA's MVP in 1997 and 1998 and also won four WNBA Championships with the Houston Comets. She was named Most Valuable Player in each of those WNBA Finals. Cooper was named the 1998 Sportswoman of the Year by the Women's Sports Foundation. During the Comet dynasty, she was a vital part of the triple threat offense with Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson. When retired in 2000, Cooper became the first player in WNBA history to score 500, 1,000, 2,000 and 2,500 career points. She scored 30 or more points in 16 of her 120 games and had a 92-game double-figure scoring streak from 1997–2000. She went on to coach the Phoenix Mercury for one and a half seasons.

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8. Lisa Leslie 1972 –

Lisa Deshaun Leslie-Lockwood  is a retired American professional women's basketball player in the WNBA. She played her whole career for the Los Angeles Sparks.[1] She is a three-time WNBA MVP and a four-time Olympic gold medal winner. The number seven pick in the 1997 WNBA draft, she followed a superb career at the University of Southern California with seven WNBA All-Star appearances and two WNBA championships. In 2003, Leslie, a 6’5″ forward, became the first player to dunk in a WNBA game. That same year she became the first WNBA player to score over 3,000 total career points and contributed to the Sparks winning their second straight world championship. Two seasons later, she became the first player to reach the 4,000-career point milestone. Considered a pioneer and cornerstone of the league during her eleven-year WNBA career, Leslie announced her retirement effective at the end of the 2009 season on January 4, 2009. Entering that season she is #2 all-time in the WNBA in total rebounds and rebounds per game, and #1 in total blocks and blocks per game.

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7. Althea Gibson 1927-2003

Althea Gibson was a World No. 1 American sportswoman who became the first African-American woman to be a competitor on the world tennis tour and the first to win a Grand Slam title in 1956. She is sometimes referred to as “the Jackie Robinson of tennis” for breaking the “color barrier.” Gibson was ranked in the world top ten from 1956 through 1958, reaching a career high of World No. 1 in 1957 and 1958. She was also the top ranked U.S. player in 1957 and 1958. In 1956, Gibson made history by becoming the first black person to win the French championships. The next year, she made more history by winning Wimbledon and the U.S. Nationals, the first black to win either. She must have liked winning the world’s two most prestigious tournaments,  because she repeated the accomplishments in 1958. The 5-foot-11 right-hander had a strong serve and preferred to play an attacking game. An athletic woman, she had good foot speed, which allowed her to cover the court. As the years went on, she became more consistent from the baseline. Including six doubles titles, she won a total of 11 Grand Slam events on her way to the International Tennis Hall of Fame and the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame.

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6. Alice Coachman 1923 -

Alice Coachman paved the way for hundreds of black female Olympic champions. She became the first African American woman to win a gold medal with a victory in the high jump in the 1948 Olympics in London. Born in Albany, Georgia, in 1923, Coachman was denied access to public training facilities because of segregation. So she ran barefoot on the back roads of Georgia, devising various makeshift barriers to jump over. In 1939, at the age of 16, she received at scholarship to attend Tuskegee Preparatory School. Before classes began, she competed in the women’s track-and-field national championship. She broke the high school and collegiate high jump records without wearing shoes. In 1948, the XIV Olympiad was held in London, England. Despite a back problem at the London Olympics, she jumped 5 feet, 6-1/4 inches on her first try, a record-breaking jump for which she earned the gold medal. Alice Coachman became the first woman of color in the world, and the first African-American woman to win a gold medal in track and field in the history of the modern Olympics. In addition, she was the only American woman to win a gold medal at the 1948 games. In 1952, Coachman became the first black female athletic champion to sign a product endorsement for a multinational corporation, Coca-Cola.

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5. Venus Williams 1980 –

Venus Ebony Starr Williams is an American professional tennis player. She has been ranked World No. 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) on three separate occasions; as of February 1, 2010, she is ranked World No. 5. She is the reigning Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open doubles champion and has won 20 Grand Slam titles: seven in women’s singles, eleven in women’s doubles and two in mixed doubles. In addition, she has won three Olympic gold medals, one in women’s singles and two in women’s doubles. Williams reached the US Open finals at the age of 17, becoming the first woman since 1978 to reach a US Open final on her début and was the first unseeded female US Open finalist since 1958. After her breakthrough, Williams reached the top ten on the WTA world rankings for the first time in 1998 when she won the Lipton Championships in Miami. Between 2000 and 2001, Williams won four of the six Grand Slam tournaments she entered. Her 35-match winning streak remains the longest of the millennium.

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4.. Florence Griffith-Joyner 1959 – 1998

Florence Griffith-Joyner (born Florence Delorez Griffith, also known as Flo-Jo was an African American track and field athlete. During the late 1980s she became a popular figure in international track and field due to her record-setting performances and flashy personal style.  While her fans remember her gold medals and world records she earned as a runner, they also cannot forget her 6-inch-long elaborately painted fingernails or her signature running outfits that teased audiences all over the globe with the view of a single bare leg. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Flo Jo topped off her track career with three gold medals in the 100, 200, and 400 meter races, as well as a silver medal in the 1600 meter relay. Her time at the 100 and 200 meter run at the Seoul games is a world record that has yet to be broken. In 1998 she died of an epiletic seizure due to a congenital defect.  She was the wife of triple jumper Al Joyner and the sister-in-law of heptathlete and long jumper Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

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3. Wilma Rudolph 1940 – 1994

Wilma Glodean Rudolph was an American athlete, who was born prematurely and weighed only 4.5 pounds. Because of racial segregation, she and her mother were not permitted to be cared for at the local hospital. It was for whites only. There was only one black doctor in Clarksville, about 50 miles away, but the Rudolph’s budget was tight, so Wilma’s mother spent the next several years nursing Wilma through one illness after another: measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox and double pneumonia. But, she had to be taken to the doctor when it was discovered that her left leg and foot were becoming weak and deformed. She was told she had polio, a crippling disease that had no cure. The doctor told Mrs. Rudolph that Wilma would never walk. But Mrs. Rudolph would not give up on Wilma. She found out that she could be treated at Meharry Hospital, the black medical college of Fisk University in Nashville. It was there that the doctors taught Mrs. Rudolph how to do the physical therapy exercises at home.  Finally, by age 12, she could walk normally, without the crutches, brace, or corrective shoes. It was then that she decided to become an athlete.  In the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games, despite running on a sprained ankle at the time. A track and field champion, Rodolph elevated women’s track to a major presence in the United States. 

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2. Serena Williams 1981 -

 Serena Jameka Williams is an American professional tennis player and the current World Number 1 ranked female player. She has been ranked World Number 1 by the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) on five separate occasions. She regained this ranking for the fifth time in her career on the 2 November 2009. She is the reigning champion in both singles and women’s doubles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon and in doubles at the US Open. In total, she has won 25 Grand Slam titles: 12 in singles, eleven in women’s doubles and two in mixed doubles. In addition, she has won two Olympic gold medals in women’s doubles. She also has won more Grand Slam titles than any other active female player and has won more career prize money than any other female athlete in history. Williams reached the top ten on the WTA world rankings for the first time in 1999 when she won several tournaments, including her first Grand Slam victory at the US Open at the age of 17. Between 2002 and 2003, Williams won five of the six Grand Slam events she entered, becoming the fifth woman in history to hold all four Grand Slam titles simultaneously.

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1. Jackie Joyner Kersee 1962 –

 Jacqueline “Jackie” Joyner-Kersee is a retired American athlete. She was one of the top American track stars of the 1980s and 1990s, winning numerous Olympic medals and setting or tying records in several events. She was the first American ever to win a gold medal in the long jump and the first woman in history to earn more than 7,000 points in the grueling seven-event heptathlon. She won three Olympic gold medals, one silver, and two bronze, and she established a world record in the heptathlon. Her achievements are so astounding-and her personality so engaging-that she has become one of America’s favorite track athletes. Joyner-Kersee has often found herself in competition with only the clock and the yardstick, having left her competitors in the dust. Not satisfied just to win, she struggles for records, for solid recognition that she dominates her sport. As Ken Denlinger put it in the Washington Post, Joyner-Kersee “smokes the world’s playgrounds as no other female athlete in history.” Sports Illustrated for Women magazine voted Joyner-Kersee the Greatest Female Athlete of the 20th century.

Sports | Comments (8)


8 Responses to “Top 10 Female Athletes”

  1. Shack Says:

    Need more track runners – Evelyn Ashford warrants listing here

  2. Leon Says:

    Great observation regarding the omission of Evelyn Ashford. But I didn’t want to bump others who paved the way.

  3. Trisha Says:

    I think you need to make room on that list for Candice Parker. If you have not seen her dunk a basketball you need to get yourself to a WNBA game. Or maybe you could come up with an “Rising Female” athletes. Either way she deserves some attention.

  4. Leon Says:

    Candace was considered, but the other female athletes listed had careers that were more prolific. And by the way, I have seen Candace dunk. She’s an outstanding athlete. And in case you didn’t know, Lisa Leslie is the first female to dunk in a WNBA game.

  5. Grapevine Grady Says:

    What? No Gail Devers, this list is a fraud.

  6. Leon Says:

    Gail is a good choice, but the others on the list had more accolades.

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  8. Leon Says:

    Thank you!