Soaring beyond expectations

Recognizing black women who excelled at their sport and are remembered because of it

Jada Thomas, Staff Writer

When people think of athletes who have made significant contributions to sports and repeatedly defied expectations, more often than not, the person who comes to mind is Black. Michael Jordan, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, LeBron James — these are all athletes who dominated their sport and will forever be revered because of that. As we sit on the cusp of Black History Month and Women’s History Month, it is necessary to acknowledge the ways that Black female athletes have stunned the world as well. As athletes, Black women have historically been trailblazers, changing the game in ways that have set them far above the rest. 

At the 2016 Olympics in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, the U.S. Women’s gymnastics team debuted Simone Biles. Although most people were unfamiliar with the gymnast from Spring, Texas, the gymnastics world knew she had been a force to be reckoned with long before she appeared on the global stage. For example, at the 2013 World Championships, Biles added her own spin on an already difficult move by adding “extra twists and flips to her dismounts,” according to the Academy of Achievement. This move pushed the confines of the traditional 10-point scoring system used in gymnastics and would become a skill named after Biles herself. Her excellence did not stop there. In fact, it continued in Rio, where she won individual gold medals in three events: the all-around, vault and floor competitions. She also won a bronze medal in the balance beam and a gold team medal. When she competed again at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Biles created an open dialogue surrounding athletes’ mental health when she made the controversial decision to withdraw early from the competition due to mental complications interfering with her performance. To open a conversation like this on such a big platform, especially about something that had previously been kept under wraps, was an act of immense bravery. Her skill as an athlete, as well as her ability to stand firm in the face of backlash, displays excellence and strength in a way that is rarely seen in sports. 

In the 1990s, two girls from Compton, California, found their place in the tennis world at a young age. Venus and Serena Williams were trained by their father, as shown in the film “King Richard,” who practically pushed them to compete at their highest level from the moment they could pick up a racquet. Due to this, Venus began competing professionally at the age of 14 and Serena at the age of 16, and they stunned the world with their talent and skill. However, because they were young Black girls in a predominantly White sport, the girls faced a large amount of racism. One example, in particular, is when the sisters competed at the Indian Wells tournament in 2001. According to Mr. Williams, he was called racial slurs by the audience and Serena received loud boos, per an article from ABC News. Furthermore, Venus and Serena have consistently had their competence undermined by commentators throughout their careers merely because they are Black. However, the sisters refused to let this deter them and they continued to perform at the highest level, going on to win multiple championships, such as the Wimbledon tournament, the Australian Open and the U.S. Open. According to NBC Connecticut, the Williams sisters “raised the standards in women’s tennis to a higher level due to their power, speed and intelligence.” Their unprecedented talent and their determination to strive for greatness despite racial adversity are likely why the sisters are hailed as two of the greatest tennis players of all time. 

After having only experienced playing with cousins and neighbors, Lusia Harris joined her high school basketball team with very little background in the sport. Despite this, she excelled on the court and, at one point, scored 40 points in a single game. When Title IX was passed in 1972, prohibiting sex-based discrimination in schools funded by the government, this allowed Harris to compete at the collegiate level, which she did at Delta State University. However, even after the passage of this law, “the NCAA was still a men’s league in 1975. The women were left to compete in the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.” That didn’t deter Harris, as her only wish was to play basketball in whatever capacity she could. During this time, Harris bolstered Delta State to their first national championship and played an integral part in them winning the game. Harris’ dominance on the court awarded her a lot of publicity, from which she received several opportunities. For instance, when women’s basketball became an Olympic sport in 1976, Harris was there and put some of the first points on the board. Likewise, another huge opportunity for Harris came when the New Orleans (now Utah) Jazz chose her in the seventh round of the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft. Although she never played on a professional court, Harris stands as the only woman ever officially drafted into the NBA. Harris’ love for basketball is what pushed her to become an unstoppable force, one that paved the way for future women who would share her passion for the game. Her entry on the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame website puts it best — “During her four-year career at Delta State University … Harris-Stewart changed the face of women’s basketball.”

The hard work and dedication of Black athletes have not gone unnoticed throughout history. In various sports, Black athletes are often the ones who have excelled to new heights and redefined what it means to be great at their game. While all Black athletes deserve the accolades they receive for their talent, the feats of Black women specifically are frequently under-recognized in sports history. Women like Simone Biles, Serena and Venus Williams and Lusia Harris soared beyond expectations simply by striving for greatness and doing what they loved. They changed the game and showed the world just how powerful being Black, as well as being a woman, can be.