Several months ago, at an Atlanta press function to introduce several of 100 American Olympic greats being saluted in conjunction with the Centennial Games, a virtual unknown attracted the biggest cluster of reporters.
Alice Coachman sat in one corner of the Hyatt hotel ballroom, charming media members as if she were everyone's favorite grandmother, not some athletic icon like fellow honorees Bill Russell, Carl Lewis, Joan Benoit Samuelson, and Karch Kiraly.
Coachman told stories of a high-jumping career that most were unaware of and offered insights into growing up as a black girl in the pre-civil rights South.
Fame seems to have come late for the retired schoolteacher and coach, who was born in Albany, Ga., and now lives near the Georgia state line in Tuskegee, Ala. Her gold medal at the 1948 London Olympics was virtually forgotten, an invisible achievement in the Olympics' pre-television era and obscured by the immediate postwar period.
Coachman, however, owns a place in history as the first black female to win an Olympic gold medal. Many people mistakenly assign that distinction to Wilma Rudolph, a triple-gold medalist in sprints at the 1960 Rome Olympics. Coachman doesn't seem bothered, only pleased that the current run of attention to Olympic history and its Southern connections has provided her a moment in the sun. Her name, no doubt, would have been emblazoned in Olympic annals had she been able to participate in the 1940 and '44 Games, which were canceled.
She won the national amateur high jump competition every year from 1939 to 1948, a record for consecutive victories.
"In 1944, I was really ready," she says. "I was right at my peak."
In 1948, she wasn't totally fit, but cleared 5 ft., 6 in. on her first jump to win the Olympic competition. The young woman who grew up running barefoot on dirt roads was presented the gold medal by King George VI.
Upon returning home, she was the guest of honor at a party thrown by Count Basie and welcomed in a segregated civic celebration in Albany, with whites and blacks seated separately. She had glimpsed the "beautiful" possibilities of shared living at the Games.
Whenever racial prejudice and hatred have presented themselves, Coachman says, she has held to something Booker T. Washington once said: "I let no man drag me down so low as to make me hate him."
Growing up, her ambition was to be famous. "I went to the movies and saw Shirley Temple. I wanted to dance on-stage with her. I wanted to be a great saxophone player like Coleman Hawkins. Unfortunately, I never had a chance to meet either one." She did, however, make the acquaintance of Jesse Owens, a fellow Southerner and track star of the 1936 Berlin Olympics.
She now travels around making classroom appearances for Avon cosmetics and representing the Xerox Corporation's Golden 100 Olympians.
All these heroes will gather today in Atlanta. Many are household names - Rafer Johnson, Mark Spitz, Mary Lou Retton, Eric Heiden - but that lady named Alice Coachman may command the biggest group of ears.