by Linda Rosenkrantz
This year, for Black History Month, we salute some of the extraordinary women athletes whose strength, skill and bravura have brought them to the top of their fields, many of them breaking records. It wasn’t easy narrowing the list down to just these 16 amazing women!
Alice Coachman Davis was a track and field star who specialized in the high jump and was the first black woman to win an Olympic gold medal– in London in 1948– at a segregated time when there was widespread opposition to women in sports. After meeting President Truman and Eleanor Roosevelt, she was honored with parades from Atlanta to Albany and was thrown a party by Count Basie. Sweet classic Alice is a current fave across the board–#70 in the US, #1 in Sweden, 7 in Italy, 17 in England and 20 on Nameberry.
Both a tennis player and professional golfer, Althea Gibson was the first black player to win a Grand Slam title in 1956, followed by Wimbledon and US Nationals victories, and voted Female Athlete of the Year twice. The poetic Greek name Althea, which means ‘with healing power’, is #305 on Nameberry, and leads to the popular short form Thea.
In 1996 Dominique Margaux Dawes won Olympic gold with the women’s gymnastics team as well as an individual bronze, becoming the first African American to win an individual Olympic medal in women’s gymnastics. After a surge of popularity in the Dynasty days, Dominique has fallen off the charts, but remains a wearable French option.
Known as Flo–Jo, Joyner was a track and field athlete considered the fastest woman of all time. Florence is another name making a comeback, now at #117 on Nameberry, #19 in England, and back on the US national list.
A record-breaking sprinting star of the seventies and eighties, Ashford is one of the few track and field athletes to boast four Olympic golds. Evelyn is a 21st century revival success story, reaching into the Top 10 last year. Bruce Willis and Carey Mulligan both have chosen it for their daughters.
23-year-old gymnast Gabrielle Christine Victoria Douglas is the 2012 Olympic all- around champion and 2015 World all-around silver medalist. In 2012, the Associated Press named her the Female Athlete of the Year. Her parents obviously liked elle-ending names, as her sisters are Joyelle and Arielle. Gabrielle, another elegant French name past its prime, has fallen from #46 in 1999 to 263 today.
Jacqueline Joyner-Kersee is one of the greatest track and field athletes, winning six Olympic medals at four different Olympic games: Sports Illustrated for Women voted her the Greatest Female Athlete of All Time. She was named in honor of Jacqueline Kennedy, who is still associated with the name.
Boxer Laila Amaria Ali was the eighth of iconic champ Muhammad Ali’s nine children. In her relatively short career, she won several championships, including the WBA World Super middleweight title, WIBA World Super Middleweight title, a Light Heavyweight and two Super Middleweight titles. The lovely, exotic Laila is one of several variations now on trend; Sandra Bullock used it for her daughter in 2015. It currently ranks at #172.
In 2002, swimmer Maritza Correia made history when she became the first black woman to break an American and world record, later becoming the first African American woman to earn a place on the US Olympic swim team. A multi-cultural variation of Marisa, Maritza has been as high as #403 on the US list. Maritza Ramos is a character on Orange is the New Black.
Ora Washington dominated black women’s tennis from 1929 to 1927, known as the “Queen of Tennis via winning the American Tennis Association’s national singles title eight times in nine years. Ora is one of several vowel-starting three-letter girl names popular at the turn of the last century and beyond—it was #104 in 1881.
Tennis superstar Serena Jameka Williams holds the most Grand Slam titles in singles, doubles and mixed doubles combined among active players. Her serene and shiny ancient Roman name ranks at #414 and 230 on NB.
Gymnast Simone Arianne Biles was a sensation at the 2016 Olympics, setting a US record for the gymnast of any gender with the most World gold medals, she is considered the greatest gymnast of all time. The elegant and stylish French name Simone, used by Dwayne Johnson for his daughter, now ranks at 747 nationally, 597 on NB.
Still in her twenties, Sloane Stevens was the 2017 US Open champion and has won six Women’s Tennis Association singles titles so far. Sleek, sophisticated Sloane has gotten attention mostly via film and TV appearances; Rob Corddry named his daughter Sloane Sullivan. Sloane now ranks at #207, 188 on NB.
Venus Ebony Starr Williams, sister of Selena, is regarded as one of the all-time greats of women’s tennis, ranked world #1 on three occasions. Her name, that of the Roman goddess of beauty and love, was given a strong, modern spin by Williams. It’s currently 602 on NB.
Bobsledder Vonetta Jeffery Flowers was the first black person, male or female, to win a gold medal in the Winter Olympics, in the inaugural bobsled event. Vonetta made a momentary appearance on the Top 1000 in the 1970s.
Wilma Goldean Rudolph was a world-record-holding Olympic champion and international sports icon in track and field in the mid-20th century, acclaimed the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s. Trivia note: She had a son she named Xurry. Though modern parents may prefer Willa, Wilma was a Top 100 name from 1912 to 1940, lasting on the list till 1973.