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Gertrude Ederle | Swimming

Gertrude Ederle was born in 1905 in Manhattan. Her father taught her to swim in the lake in Highlands, New Jersey, which sparked a lifelong love of the water. Gertie joined the Women’s Swimming Association at age 12, and set the world record in the 880-yard freestyle the same year. Over the course of her career, Gertie would set 29 records, both nationally and internationally. She competed in the 1924 Paris Olympics, winning a gold medal on the US team, and two bronze medals in individual races. In 1926, at age 20, Gertie became the first woman to successfully swim the English Channel. She entered the water at Cape Gris-Nez in France at 7:08 AM on August 6, and came ashore at Kingsdown, Kent 14 hours and 34 minutes later; her time set the world record, beating out all five men who swam the Channel before her. When she returned home to Manhattan, two million people gathered for a parade. The Great Depression derailed Gertie’s swimming career, and she spent the rest of her life teaching swimming to deaf children. Gertie was inducted into the National Woman’s Hall of Fame in 2003, and died the same year at the age of 98.  A film about her life entitled The Young Woman and the Sea is scheduled for release in 2021. Learn more about Gertrude in the biography America’s Girl: The Incredible Story of How Swimmer Gertrude Ederle Changed the Nation and the critically-acclaimed children’s book America’s Champion Swimmer: Gertrude Ederle.

Wilma Rudolph

Althea Gibson | Tennis

Althea Gibson was born in Silver, South Carolina to Daniel and Annie Gibson, who worked as cotton sharecroppers. When the Great Depression hit, the Gibson family relocated to Harlem, where Althea began playing paddle tennis in the Police Athletic League play area. At the age of 12 she was named the New York City women’s paddle tennis champion. Despite leaving school and moving into a protective shelter for abused children the following year, Althea entered and won the 1941 American Tennis Association New York Championship. Her win attracted the attention of physicians and activists Walter Johnson and Hubert A. Eaton, who began mentoring Althea and enrolled her in Williston Industrial High School in North Carolina. While in North Carolina, she became the first Black woman to play in the USTA’s National Indoor Championships. Althea graduated high school and enrolled at Florida A & M University on a full athletic scholarship. Over the course of her amateur career, Althea won 56 national and international titles. Realizing that racial prejudice was holding her back from pursuing a professional tennis career, Althea turned to golf, and became the first Black woman to join the LGPA tour. Despite a low-earning professional career in tennis and golf, Althea is credited with paving the way for other Black athletes, including Arthur Ashe. She was inducted into the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1980, and in 1991 was named to Sports Illustrated for Women’s 100 Greatest Female Athletes list. Althea died in 2003 following complications of respiratory and bladder infections. Learn more about Althea in her autobiography I Always Wanted to Be Somebody.

Caitlyn Jenner

Billie Jean King | Tennis

Billie Jean King was raised in Long Beach, California by a family of athletes who excelled in swimming, basketball, baseball, and track. She launched her athletic “career” at age 10, playing shortstop on a softball team with girls 4-5 years her senior. She began playing tennis the following year after he parents suggested that she find a more “ladylike” sport. Billie Jean left college after two years to focus on a tennis career and skyrocketed to prominence after she became the fifth woman in history to win the singles titles at all four Grand Slam events at the 1972 French Open. The following year, Billie Jean defeated the top men’s tennis player, Bobby Riggs, in an exhibition Battle of the Sexes match. In 1967, she was named Female Athlete of the Year by The Associated Press, and was named the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year in 1972, becoming the first woman to hold the title.

Serena Williams
Gertrude Ederle

Wilma Rudolph | Track & Field

Wilma Rudolph was born prematurely at 4.5 pounds, the twentieth of 22 siblings, and struggled with health issues throughout most of her childhood including polio and the loss of strength in her left leg and foot. Facing a lack of healthcare for Black people in their hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee, Wilma’s parents regularly traveled 50 miles by bus for two years to provide her with weekly treatment at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. In high school, Wilma participated in basketball and track for the first time. She attended the 1965 US Olympic track and field team trials in Seattle, and ended up competing in Melbourne, Australia that same year. Following her high school graduation, she enrolled at Tennessee State University as a single, teenage mother, and began competing in track. At the 1960 trials, Wilma set the world record in the 200-meter dash, which she held for eight years. She competed in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome winning three gold medals, and emerged known as “The Tornado, the fastest woman on earth.” She returned to Tennessee and became a second grade teacher. Wilma died of brain and throat cancer on November 12, 1994. Learn more about Wilma in the film about her life, Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph.

Althea Gibson

Caitlyn Jenner | Track & Field

Caitlyn Jenner grew up in New York and Connecticut and showed athletic ability from a young age. In 1968 she enrolled in Graceland University on a football scholarship but was forced to leave the program due to an injury. A track couch encouraged Caitlyn to pursue the decathlon instead. Caitlyn made her Olympic debut in 1974 as the American champion in the men’s decathlon event, and was named Male Athlete of the Year by The Associated Press. She was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1980 and the Olympic Hall of Fame in 1986. Following her retirement, Caitlyn capitalized on her Olympic fame through television and movie appearances, and later marketed herself as a motivational speaker. In 2015 at the age of 66, she came out as a trans woman and held a renaming ceremony in July, where she adopted the name Caitlyn Marie Jenner. Caitlyn was presented with the Arthur Ashe Courage Award the same year. Learn more about Caitlyn’s brave coming out in her memoir, The Secrets of My Life.

Serena Williams | Tennis

Serena Williams grew up between Michigan, California, and Florida as the youngest of 12 children. When she was four, her father began coaching she and her sister Venus in tennis, and the girls later attended tennis academies and received private coaching. After experiencing racism from white adults in the tennis clubs, Serena’s father began pulling back on his daughters’ tennis lessons, despite Serena being ranked top in the state of Florida among players under 10. After withdrawing from the tennis academy, Serena’s father coached her privately. Serena played in her first professional tournament at 14, and is largely considered the greatest female tennis player of all time. In 2019, The Associated Press named Serena the Female Athlete of the Decade for the 2010s. Outside of tennis, she is an active supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and gender equality. She runs the Serena Williams Foundation, which has built schools in Kenya and Jamaica, and provides college scholarships for underprivileged students in the United States. Learn more about Serena in her autobiography On the Line.

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