Black History Month: 18 African American athletes who have transformed sports

February is Black History Month, and during this time we acknowledge all of the African American men and women who have made strides for people of color in this country. We remember civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks alongside accomplished female athletes like Grand Slam record-holder Serena Williams and six-time Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

In honor of Black History Month, here are 18 African-American woman who have made a definitive impact as athletes and changed the course of sports history in the U.S. forever.

1. Serena Williams

It may go without saying, but we’ll say it anyway: Serena Williams is one of the best tennis players of all time. At the 2017 Australian Open, the 35-year-old won her 23rd Grand Slam Title—the most ever won by any player, male or female. Not only is Williams the “Queen of the Court,” she is an entrepreneur in the fashion industry and an outspoken activist for social justice.

[More from Excelle Sports: Serena Williams wins Australian Open, record 23rd Grand Slam title]

2. Wilma Rudolph

Nicknamed “The Tornado,” Wilma Rudolph was the first woman to win three gold medals in one Olympic Games (Rome, Italy 1960). Rudolph, who specialized in the 100-meter and 200-meter races, overcame polio to become the fastest woman in the world during her time. She was also recognized as a civil rights and women’s rights activist in the 60s.

(Photo Credit: ALLSPORT)

3.  Simone Biles

With her explosive floor routines and awe-inspiring vaults, Simone Biles has reached soaring heights—literally. After winning five gold medals and one bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, she has become the most decorated American gymnast in history. Put that on your Wheaties box.

5. Simone Manuel

At the 2016 Rio Olympic Games, Stanford pool star Simone Manuel shattered the stereotype that “black people can’t swim” by becoming the first African-American to win an individual gold medal in the sport, doing so in the 100-meter freestyle. Manuel tied Canadian Penny Oleksiak for first place while setting a new a Olympic record and American record in the event.

[More from Excelle Sports: Simone Manuel re-lives the start of her Olympic dreams]

Looking back at 2016 like…

A photo posted by Simone Manuel (@swimone13) on

6. Althea Gibson

Before Venus and Serena Williams, Althea Gibson paved the way for African American tennis players. In 1956, Gibson became the first person of color, male or female, to win a Grand Slam title when she took top place at the French Open. The following year, she  won Wimbledon and U.S. Nationals, now known as the U.S. Open. By the time her career was over, the South Carolina native had won 11 Grand Slam titles.

7. Crystal Dunn

Ever since she was called up to the national team in 2013, Crystal Dunn has become one of the faces of diversity for U.S. women’s soccer. Although Dunn was left off the 2015 World Cup-winning roster, that same year, she proved that she’s still one of the most dynamic forwards in the game by scoring the most goals in the NWSL. That season she became the youngest player to win both the National Women’s Soccer League’s MVP and Golden Boot awards at the age of 23.

[More from Excelle Sports: Crystal Dunn talks Chelsea deal, diversity at USWNT camp]

Yassss its game day!!??

A photo posted by Crystal Dunn (@cdunn19) on

8.  Dominique Dawes

Dominique Dawes was the gymnastics’ trailblazer before Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas came along. Known in the gymnastics world as “Awesome Dawesome,” she became the first African-American person, male or female, to win an individual Olympic bronze medal in artistic gymnastics at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Georgia. She was also a member of the Olympic gold medal-winning “Magnificent Seven” at the 1996 Summer Games.

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 30: Dominique Dawes of the US waves from the podium after receiving bronze for women's individual floor event 29 July at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. All-round women's champion Lilia Podkopayeva of the Ukraine took gold and Simona Amanar of Romania got silver. (FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY) AFP-IOPP/Eric FEFERBERG (Photo credit should read AF/AFP/Getty Images)
(Photo credit: AF/AFP/Getty Images)

9. Claressa Shields

See her fight and you’ll also see that Claressa “T-Rex” Shields can float like a butterfly and sting like a bee, too. That’s because the two-time gold medalist has been studying boxing legend Muhammad Ali for years. At the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Shields became the first woman to win a gold medal in the sport. Four years later in Rio, she successfully defended her title. The 21-year-old currently holds a 78-1 record.

[More from Excelle Sports: Claressa Shields wins by unanimous decision in pro debut]

10. Mo’ne Davis

In 2014, Mo’ne Davis showed the world how to “throw like a girl” when she became the first woman to pitch a shutout in Little League World Series. The 15-year-old from Philadelphia was the first African-American woman to even play in the tournament, and her performance landed her on the cover of Sports Illustrated—no Little Leaguer has ever earned that coveted spot.

11. Florence Griffith-Joyner

American sprinter Florence Griffith-Joyner is, historically, the fastest woman of all time. She still holds the world records in the 100-meter and 200-meter races, both of which she set at the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. Flo-Jo was as flashy as she was speedy. She is often remembered for her flamboyant, hand-sewn uniforms and her long, colorful nails. Griffith-Joyner died unexpectedly from an epileptic seizure in 1998 at the age of 38.

1989: Florence Griffith Joyner poses for a portrait in 1989. (Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images)
(Photo by Tony Duffy/Getty Images)

12. Ibtihaj Muhammad

At the 2016 Games in Rio, sabre fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad made headlines as the first Muslim-American to compete in the Olympics. In a post-9/11 society, Muhammad’s success dispelled negative stereotypes surrounding Muslim culture in America. Even though she lost in the second round of the individual competition, the New Jersey native won bronze in the team event to become the first female Muslim-American athlete to earn a medal at the Olympics.

[More from Excelle Sports: Olympic fencing sensation Ibtihaj Muhammad isn’t about to stop fighting for Muslim women]

13. Candace Parker

Candace Parker of the Los Angeles Sparks is one of the most dominant center/forwards in WNBA history. She was recruited to play at the University of Tennessee after becoming the first female athlete to be awarded the Gatorade National Basketball Player award twice (2003, 2004) in high school. In 2008, Parker became the second woman to dunk in a WNBA game, and won the league’s MVP award in 2008 and 2012, in addition to other accolades. The 30-year-old has also won two Olympic gold medals with Team USA.

Play the game differently and stand out. I’m #heretocreate @adidas

A photo posted by Candace Parker (@candaceparker) on


14. Debi Thomas

Figure-skater-turned-doctor Debi Thomas is celebrated as one of the best African-American skaters in history. In 1986, she became the first African-American athlete to win a non-novice title at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. At the 1988 Games, Thomas became the first black person of any nationality to win a medal at the Winter Olympics after she grabbed bronze medal in Calgary, Canada.

American figure skater Debi Thomas during an exclusive photo shoot. (Photo by Gilbert Iundt; Jean-Yves Ruszniewski/TempSport/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)
(Photo credit Gilbert Iundt; Jean-Yves Ruszniewski/TempSport/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images)

15. Natasha Watley

Former ULCA All-American Natasha Watley was the first African-American woman to play softball for Team USA on the Olympic level. As a shortstop and first basewoman, Watley helped the national team win gold at the 2004 Games in Athens and then silver at the 2008 Games in Beijing. In National Pro Fastpitch, the California native played for the USSSA Pride and is still the the career hits leader for the league.

Natasha Watley
(Photo credit: Zimbio)

16. Venus Williams

At 36 years old, Venus Williams shows no signs of stopping, continuing to beat some of the world’s top players on the Grand Slam circuit. In 2002, Williams became the first African-American woman to reach the World No. 1 spot. Despite dealing with the immune disorder Sjögrens Syndrome, she is currently the No. 11 ranked tennis player in the world, with seven Grand Slam titles to her name along with a side career as a successful fashion designer.

@wilsontennis #blade #new #2017 #aces #action

A photo posted by Venus Williams (@venuswilliams) on

17. Blake Bolden

Blake Bolden’s professional hockey career may only have begun a few years back, but the Euclid, Ohio native has already made history. In 2015, the 25-year-old became the first African-American to play in the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). Bolden plays defense for the Boston Pride, and last year, she helped her team nab the Isobel Cup during the NWHL’s inaugural season. Before signing on with the Pride, Bolden played for the Canadian Women’s Hockey League’s Boston Blades, winning the prestigious Clarkson Cup in 2015.

[More from Excelle Sports: Diversity, Hockey and Living in a Post-Julie Chu Era]

18. Jackie Joyner-Kersee

If Superwoman were to exist, heptathlete and long jumper Jackie Joyner-Kersee would wear the cape. With three Olympic gold medals, one silver and two bronze, the UCLA grad is the most decorated track and field athlete ever in Olympic history. Joyner-Kersee, 54, still holds the heptathlon world record that she set at the 1988 Games (7,291 points).

Who are your favorite black athletes in women’s sports? Share with us by tweeting us at @excellesports.

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