BHM: Black female athletes that dominate in sports


Athletes such as Simone Biles and Venus and Serena Williams are some of the more well known black female athletes today. Photo courtesy of BBC Sports

Katie Dikes

Although barriers had been set up in the past for women in sports, especially women of color, many of society’s athletic idols today are strong female athletes who have taken it upon themselves to break down these barriers. In honor of Black History Month and of Women’s History Month in March, here are five of some of the top black women athletes in the world of professional sports.

Coco Gauff

At just 15 years of age, Coco Gauff rose to prominence in the professional world of womens’ tennis when she beat her longtime idol, Venus Williams, during the first round of Wimbledon in 2019. Her tennis career, however, began way earlier when she was six years old. 

Born to Candi and Corey Gauff, Coco was encouraged by her parents to pursue a sport of her choosing because they were athletes themselves; she chose tennis. Her two tennis idols were in fact Venus and Serena Williams, and because the sisters were taking over a sport that is predominately white, Gauff felt like she could do the same. 

“I grew up watching [them]….that’s the reason why I play tennis,” Gauff said.

By the time she was 10 in 2014, Gauff had traveled to France to work with Serena Williams’ former coach, Patrick Mouratoglou. Her play improved greatly and Gauff won the United States Tennis Association Clay Court National 12-under title in that same year. In 2017 she took second place at the U.S. Open Girl’s Junior Championships and became the junior champion at the French Open the year after. 

Gauff continued to climb even higher after beating Venus Williams at Wimbledon- she became the youngest player to make it to the third round of the U.S. Open in 2019 and her first WTA (Women’s Tennis Association) title came in 2019, when she won the Linz Open in Austria. 

The goal of every professional tennis player is to reach and win the final of the four Grand Slams, which are the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open; these tournaments guarantee a player more recognition and prize earnings. Gauff’s best Grand Slam single resulted in her making it to the fourth round at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, the quarter final at the U.S. Open and the final at the French Open. Gauff also has a successful career in doubles, oftentimes partnering with Jessica Pegula; their most recent doubles win was at the Qatar Open. Though she is currently only 18 years old, Gauff has proven not only to herself, but also to the world of tennis just how capable and outstanding she is in the game of tennis.

Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone

Before she even became a professional track and field runner, Sydney McLaughlin-Levrone was on track to becoming a professional. Born into a family of runners, it was unsurprising that McLaughlin pursued the sport at an early age: her parents, as well as her three other siblings, have achieved numerous awards and dominated in the sport at high school and collegiate levels. 

Though McLaughlin competed and won several competitions at an early age, her first big breakthrough came in 2016, where she placed third in the 400-meter hurdles in 54.15s at the US Olympic Trials. As a result of this she set a new world youth best and world junior record and qualified for the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, all before her senior year in high school. In 2017, McLaughlin was part of an American record setting quartet that broke the indoor distance medley relay world record. She was also the Gatorade National Player of the Year in 2015-16 and 2016-17, the first athlete to repeat in the 15-year award. 

At only 17, McLaughlin also made it to the cover of Sports Illustrated. In 2016, she signed a National Letter of Intent to attend the University of Kentucky to compete in track and field. Success came quickly for McLaughlin: in 2018, she set the world junior 400-meter record of 50.36s at the 2018 NCAA Division I Indoor Track and Field Championships. In that same year, McLaughlin broke the collegiate and NCAA record in the 400 meter hurdles, running 52.75s to win the event in her first SEC championship appearance. After only a year at Kentucky, she forfeited her right to compete in college to turn professional, signing a sponsorship with New Balance. 

From there, McLaughlin’s professional career has taken off and she has continued to sprint towards breaking more world records and becoming one of the strongest track and field competitors in the world. 

Dawn Staley

A native of Philadelphia, Dawn Staley’s childhood, teenage years, college years and adulthood have been all about basketball. In her teens, Staley was named the national high school player of the year during her final season at Murrell Dobbins Tech High School. She also led the team to three consecutive Philadelphia Public League championships. 

Her success caught the eyes of Shawn Campbell, who was Temple’s associate head coach at the time. Campbell recruited Staley to play for the University of Virginia. She led the Cavaliers to four NCAA National tournaments, reaching the final four three times and a national championship. Named ACC female athlete of the year and the national player of the year in 1991 and 1992, Staley finished her collegiate career with 2,135 points. Her jersey number, 24, is retired at UVA. She is 1 of 5 former women basketball players to have their jersey retired because of all her accomplishments, including being the only player in ACC history (male or female) to tally over 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, 700 assists and 400 steals. 

After graduating, Staley went abroad and played professional basketball in France, Italy, Brazil and Spain before joining the American Basketball League and the Women’s National Basketball Association. Her career shot off from there and she has received many accolades such as gold medals at the Olympics and at the World Cup. A part of the United States women’s basketball team in 1996, 2000 and 2004, Staley and the team earned gold medals during all three occurrences. During the Women’s World Cup in basketball, Staley and the team achieved a bronze medal at Australia in 1994 and gold medals at Germany in 1998 and at China in 2002. 

After her own basketball career, Staley was then approached to start coaching. She had no interest when she was first approached by Temple’s Athletic Director in 2000, but after some convincing and changing of tactics she accepted the job and became the head coach at Temple. After eight years at Temple, with the best overall record of 172–80, along with six NCAA appearances and four Atlantic 10 titles, Staley left to take the recently vacated coaching position at the University of South Carolina. Under Staley the program has captured five SEC regular season championships, six SEC tournament titles, three Final Fours, two NCAA National Championships, seven sweet sixteen appearances, five SEC player of the year awards and five SEC freshman of the year awards. 

Staley herself has been awarded SEC coach of the year five times. This year is no exception: ranked number one and undefeated, the Gamecocks are on their way to defend their title in the NCAA Tournament. Staley, an avid Philadelphia Eagles fan, returned her good fortune to her community back home, creating the Dawn Staley Foundation. The foundation offers under-privileged girls programs that develop leadership, teamwork and social skills. As an active member of her community, Staley continues to strive for excellence every day on and off the court. 

Simone Biles

Even at a young age, many people could tell that Simone Biles was a promising gymnast. Raised by her grandparents, Biles’ talent was discovered while she was in day care. According to Biles, the coach noticed her imitating gymnasts on a field trip and sent home a letter, requesting that she join tumbling or gymnastics. Biles began competing at the age of 7 in 2007 and had sealed her status at the junior elite level after only four years. 

Biles “took the top spot in the vault and balance beam events and finished third in the all-around at the American Classic. She followed with an impressive series of showings in 2012, winning the vault and the all-around events at the American Classic, the Alamo Classic, the Houston National Invitational and the Secret U.S. Classic.” Biles soon emerged as a force to be reckoned with and continued to build upon her success.

In 2016 during the Olympic Games at Rio de Janeiro, Biles wowed the world of gymnastics with stellar performances, winning the all-around title and first in the floor exercise and vault, leading the US gymnastics team to a gold medal. Though taking most of 2017 off, Biles returned to take her place as one of the best gymnasts in the sport. She also joined season 24 of ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ 

However, during the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Biles withdrew from competition to focus on her mental health, which resulted in her not competing in the finals on vault, uneven bars and floor exercise, as well as the all-around. She did, however, compete in the balance beam and earned a bronze medal. Citing that her “mind and body were simply not in sync,” as well as the pressure of being a professional Olympian athlete, Biles’ announcement helped shed a light on the mental health of all athletes. “Getting the mental health therapy that I need has been really relieving for me, especially being on the road and on tour,” Biles said. 

Biles continues to be an advocate for mental health, calling the battle for such far from over. However, Biles came back and performed strongly at the GK US Classic in Indianapolis, when she made history as the first woman to successfully land the Yurchenko double pike move in competition. Now at 25 years old, Biles continues to make history in the sport of gymnastics and her seven Olympic medals tied with Shannon Miller for the most Olympic medals won by an American gymnast just only further proves all the success that has and will come her way. 

Simone Manuel 

In Sugar Land, Texas, at just the age of 4, Simone Manuel was able to swim across the pool on her second day of lessons. Born into a family of athletes, Simone was an exceptional athlete at a young age, excelling at soccer, volleyball, basketball and dance. She was also the youngest of her siblings and with two older brothers Manuel knew she had to keep up and make her own stance. By the age of 10, however, Manuel considered quitting swimming in favor of dance, but her mother convinced her otherwise and assisted her in doing both activities. By the time she was 11, Manuel had joined the First Colony Swim Team in Houston, and under the guidance of her coach, she developed into the top-ranked swimmer in her age group in the 50-meter and 100-meter freestyle events. 

Manuel made her international debut at the 2011 FINA World Junior Championships, earning a fourth place finish in the 100-meter freestyle. A year later, she competed in the Junior Pan Pacific Swimming Championships, winning the 100-meter and placed 20th in the 50-meter freestyle and 17th in the 100-meter freestyle events at the 2012 United States Olympic Trials. In 2013, she competed at the US National Championships and finished third in the 100-meter freestyle and second in the 50-meter freestyle events. Manuel also qualified for the 2013 World Aquatics Championships in Barcelona, Spain, where she won a gold medal in the preliminary for the 4×100-meter freestyle relay. After graduating from high school, she took her swimming success to Stanford University in California where she competed in the 2014 U.S. National Championships and Pan Pacific Swimming Championships; here she won Bronze and Silver medals. In 2015 Manuel became a two-time NCAA champion, winning the 50-yard and 100-yard freestyle. She also competed in the 2015 World Aquatics Championships and placed fourth in the 4×100 medley relay, sixth in the 100-meter freestyle and eighth in the 50-meter freestyle. 

One of Manuel’s biggest breakthroughs came in 2016 when she qualified to compete in the summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. She ended up winning a silver medal in the 4×100-meter freestyle relay alongside Abbey Weitzeil, Dana Vollmer and Katie Ledecky. Manuel also tied Penny Oleksiak of Canada for the gold medal in the 100-meter freestyle, setting an Olympic record of 52.70s. 

Affectionately known as “Swimone,” Manuel’s career hasn’t even stalled. Outside of the pool, Simone “invests her platform as a vehicle for change,” according to her personal website. She has a partnership with LeBron James’ I Promise school which is focused on providing swim lessons to kids as not only a life-saving tool, but “also a statement on opportunity.” Manuel’s latest success came during the 2020 summer Olympics at Tokyo where she won a bronze medal in the 4×100m freestyle relay. However, Manuel, “an Olympian with a bright future and portfolio full of partners” dedicated to helping her community “hopes to continue to build a legacy of inclusion and inspiration that reminds people on a daily basis that there are no limits to what we can be.”