Black History Month - Athletics

This year to celebrate Black History Month, M. H. West & Co., Inc. will be highlighting notable African-Americans in selected fields each week. This week the field is athletics. Please check back next week to view notable African-Americans in entertainment.

Past Black History Month Fields

African-American Athletes

Althea Gibson
Althea Gibson

08.25.1927 – 09.28. 2003

Althea Gibson was the first African-American tennis player to compete at the U.S. National Championships in 1950, and the first black player to compete at Wimbledon in 1951. She also broke racial barriers in professional golf.

Synopsis

Althea Gibson was born in South Carolina on August 25, 1927. At an early age, she developed a love of sport. Her great talent was in tennis, but in the 1940s and '50s, most tournaments were closed to African Americans. Gibson kept playing (and winning) until her skills could no longer be denied, and in 1951, she became the first African American to play at Wimbledon. Gibson won the women's singles and doubles at Wimbledon in 1957, and won the U.S. Open in 1958.

Early Life

Althea Neale Gibson was born on August 25, 1927, in Silver, South Carolina. Gibson blazed a new trail in the sport of tennis, winning some of the sport's biggest titles in the 1950s, and broke racial barriers in professional golf as well.

At a young age, Gibson moved with her family to Harlem, a neighborhood in the borough of New York City. Gibson's life at this time had its hardships. Her family struggled to make ends meet, living on public assistance for a time, and Gibson struggled in the classroom, often skipping school all together. However, Gibson loved to play sports—especially table tennis—and she soon made a name for herself as a local table tennis champion. Her skills were eventually noticed by musician Buddy Walker, who invited her to play tennis on local courts.

After winning several tournaments hosted by the local recreation department, Gibson was introduced to the Harlem River Tennis Courts in 1941. Incredibly, just a year after picking up a racket for the first time, she won a local tournament sponsored by the American Tennis Association, an African-American organization established to promote and sponsor tournaments for black players. She picked up two more ATA titles in 1944 and 1945. Then, after losing one title in 1946, Gibson won 10 straight championships from 1947 to 1956. Amidst this winning streak, she made history as the first African-American tennis player to compete at both the U.S. National Championships (1950) and Wimbledon (1951).

Making History

Gibson's success at those ATA tournaments paved the way for her to attend Florida A&M University on a sports scholarship. She graduated from the school in 1953, but it was a struggle for her to get by. At one point, she even thought of leaving sports all together to join the U.S. Army. A good deal of her frustration had to do with the fact that so much of the tennis world was closed off to her. The white-dominated, white-managed sport was segregated in the United States, as was the world around it.

The breaking point came in 1950, when Alice Marble, a former tennis No. 1 herself, wrote a piece in American Lawn Tennis magazine lambasting her sport for denying a player of Gibson's caliber to compete in the world's best tournaments. Marble's article caught notice, and by 1952—just one year after becoming the first black player to compete at Wimbledon—Gibson was a Top 10 player in the United States. She went on to climb even higher, to No. 7 by 1953.

In 1955, Gibson and her game were sponsored by the United States Lawn Tennis Association, which sent her around the world on a State Department tour that saw her compete in places like India, Pakistan, and Burma. Measuring 5-feet 11-inches, and possessing superb power and athletic skill, Gibson seemed destined for bigger victories. In 1956, it all came together when she won the French Open. Wimbledon and U.S. Open titles followed in both 1957 and 1958. (She won both the women's singles and doubles at Wimbledon in 1957, which was celebrated by a ticker tape parade when she returned home to New York City.) In all, Gibson powered her way to 56 singles and doubles championships before turning pro in 1959.

For her part, however, Gibson downplayed her pioneering role. "I have never regarded myself as a crusader," she states in her 1958 autobiography, I Always Wanted to Be Somebody. "I don't consciously beat the drums for any cause, not even the negro in the United States."

Commercial Success

As a professional, Gibson continued to win—she landed the singles title in 1960—but just as importantly, she started to make money. She was reportedly paid $100,000 for a playing a series of matches before Harlem Globetrotter games. For a short time, too, the athletically gifted Gibson turned to golf, making history again as the first black woman ever to compete on the pro tour.

But failing to win on the course as she had on the courts, she eventually returned to tennis. In 1968, with the advent of tennis' Open era, Gibson tried to repeat her past success. She was too old and too slow-footed, however, to keep up with her younger counterparts.

Following her retirement, in 1971, Gibson was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. She stayed connected to sports, however, through a number of service positions. Beginning in 1975, she served 10 years as commissioner of athletics for New Jersey State. She was also a member of the governor's council on physical fitness.

Later Struggles

But just as her early childhood had been, Gibson's last few years were dominated by hardship. She nearly went bankrupt before former tennis great Billie Jean King and others stepped in to help her out. Her health, too, went into decline. She suffered a stroke and developed serious heart problems. On September 28, 2003, Gibson died of respiratory failure in East Orange, New Jersey.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/althea-gibson-9310580

Jim Brown
Jim Brown

02.17.1936 –

Jim Brown is a record-holding, former NFL fullback who's been elected to his sport's Hall of Fame and who's also worked as a model and film actor.

Synopsis

Born on February 17, 1936, on St. Simons Island in Georgia, Jim Brown was an All-American athlete who went on to play for the Cleveland Browns as a star running back, setting records and being elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He retired in 1967 to focus on acting, with roles in films like The Dirty Dozen, Ice Station Zebra and Kenner. He's later focused on black business empowerment.

Early Years

Born February 17, 1936, on St. Simons Island, off the southern coast of Georgia, James Nathaniel Brown experienced a childhood shaped by struggle. He was just two weeks old when his father abandoned the family. His mother soon departed from his life as well, taking a job as a maid in Manhasset, New York, and leaving the care of her young son in the hands of Brown's great-grandmother.

Brown was 8 years old when his mother finally sent for him to come live with her in New York. In his new home, Brown did well, thriving on the football field for the largely white Manhasset High School. During his senior year, the young running back averaged an astonishing 14.9 yards per carry, more than good enough to earn him a spot at Syracuse University.

In college, Brown dominated the competition, both on the football field and on the basketball court. He also ran track and was a talented lacrosse player.

As a running back, Brown earned national attention for his strong, explosive play. In the final regular-season game of his senior year, Brown capped off his college career by rushing for 197 yards, scoring six touchdowns and kicking seven extra points.

Pro Career

In 1957 the Cleveland Browns selected Brown with the sixth overall pick in the National Football League draft. Brown wasted little time adjusting to the new competition, leading the league in rushing yards with 942 on his way to capturing the league's Rookie of the Year honors.

It was just the start. Over the next seven seasons Brown became the standard-bearer for all NFL running backs. At a time when defenses were geared toward stopping the ground game, Brown bulldozed his way past opposition, posting remarkable season totals: 1,527 yards (1958), 1,329 (1959), 1,257 (1960), 1,408 (1961), 1,863 (1963), 1,446 (1964) and 1,544 (1965).

His only “down” year came in 1962, when Brown rushed for 996 yards. It was the one season in his brilliant but brief football career that he failed to lead the league in yards.

In 1964 Brown steered Cleveland to the NFL championship, where the club routed Baltimore to win the title, 27-0. In the game, Brown ran for 114 yards.

But Brown saw a life for himself outside of football, and before the start of the 1966 season, he stunned the sports world by announcing his retirement. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

After Football

Just 30 years old when he stepped away from the game, Brown wanted to use his post-football life to focus on a movie career. While some doubted he would stay away from the game for long, Brown stayed true to his word, leaving football for good and going on to appear in more than 30 films, including “The Dirty Dozen” (1967) and “100 Rifles” (1969).

But trouble also followed the temperamental Brown. For much of his adult life he's been dogged by accusations of assault. In 1968 he was accused of his throwing his then girlfriend off a second-story balcony. The following year he managed to escape charges that alleged he assaulted another man following a traffic accident.

More recently, in 1999, Brown was convicted of smashing the window of his wife's car. After refusing to attend counseling, Brown served a six-month jail sentence in 2002.

But Brown's life has also been defined by his support of African-American causes. In the 1960s he threw his support behind black-owned business by helping to create the Negro Industrial Economic Union. In the late 1980s he started the Amer-I-Can program, which aimed to turn the lives around of young gang members. He's also been fiercely critical of modern black athletes, such as Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, for not being better role models for younger black athletes.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/jim-brown-9228484

Lebron James
LeBron James

12.30.1984 –

LeBron James became an immediate star after skipping college to join the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers. He led the Miami Heat to NBA titles in 2012 and 2013, and won a third championship with Cleveland in 2016.

Synopsis

Born in Ohio in 1984, LeBron James garnered national attention as the top high school basketball player in the country. With his unique combination of size, athleticism and court vision, he became one of the premier players in the NBA for the Cleveland Cavaliers. After leading the Miami Heat to titles in 2012 and 2013, he returned to Cleveland and helped the franchise claim its first championship in 2016.

High School Basketball Star

Professional athlete LeBron Raymone James was born on December 30, 1984, in Akron, Ohio. At an early age, he showed a natural talent for basketball. James was recruited by St. Vincent-St. Mary High School to join their basketball team in 1999.

As a freshman, James averaged 18 points per game. He helped the team to a Division III state title by scoring 25 points in the championship game. Word of his advanced basketball skills spread, and James received several honors for his performance. As a high school sophomore, he was chosen for the USA Today All-USA First Team. James was the first sophomore ever selected for this award. His team also won the Division III state title for the second year in a row.

The following school year, James was named PARADE magazine's High School Boys Basketball Player of the Year and Gatorade Player of the Year. Following the end of his junior year, James was such a strong player that he contemplated going pro.

Deciding to finish his education, James had a tremendous senior year on the court. He averaged 31.6 points per game, helping his team clinch their third state title. The team also earned the top national ranking that year. Overall, James scored 2,657 points, 892 rebounds and 523 assists during his four years at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School. He would soon emerge as one of the National Basketball Association's leading players.

Career With Cleveland Cavaliers

With his impressive record, it was no surprise that James was the first player picked in the 2003 NBA Draft. The Cleveland Cavaliers signed the powerful young forward, and he proved to be a valuable addition to the then-struggling franchise. The team had ended the previous season in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. Around this time, James also signed several endorsement deals, including one with Nike for $90 million.

During the 2003-04 season, James made history when he became the first member of the Cavalier franchise to win the NBA Rookie of the Year Award. He also became the youngest player—at only 20 years old—to receive this honor. Additionally, James, averaging 20 points per game at this time, became one of only three rookies to accomplish this feat, putting him in the same company as Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson.

During the summer of 2004, James made his Olympic debut at the Summer Games in Athens, Greece, as part of the U.S. Olympic basketball team. He and his teammates won bronze medals after defeating Lithuania. Argentina took home the gold after beating Italy in the finals.

Outside of his basketball career, James went through some changes in his personal life around this time. He became a father for the first time in October 2004, when he and girlfriend Savannah Brinson welcomed a son, LeBron Jr.

NBA Star

James continued to excel professionally in the NBA the following season, upping his average points per game to 27.2. He made NBA history again in 2005, when he became the youngest player to score more than 50 points in one game. He was selected for the NBA All-Star Game for the first time, a feat he would repeat several times over the next few seasons.

In 2006, James helped his team defeat the Washington Wizards in the first round of playoff action. From there, the Cavaliers took on the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference semifinals. James scored an average of 26.6 per game in this postseason match-up, but it wasn't enough to secure victory for his team. While his team wasn't at the top of rankings, James himself continued to receive special recognition for his abilities. He was named the Most Valuable Player in the NBA All-Star Game in 2006. That same year, James reached a new contract agreement with the Cavaliers.

The Cavaliers proved to be stronger competitors the following season, defeating Detroit to win the Eastern Conference. In the NBA Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, however, the Cavaliers lost their championship bid in four consecutive games. Also during this time, James became a father for the second time. His girlfriend, Savannah Brinson, gave birth to their son, Bryce Maximus, in June of 2007.

During the 2007-08 season, James continued to help the Cavaliers improve their standing in the Eastern Conference. The team made it to the semifinals, where they were defeated by the Boston Celtics in seven games. In terms of individual performance, James had a stellar year, outperforming such rival players as Kobe Bryant and Allen Iverson by scoring an average of 30 points per game, the highest average in the NBA regular season.

Career With Miami Heat

That summer, James traveled to Beijing, China, to play with the likes of Bryant, Jason Kidd and Dwyane Wade on the U.S. Olympic basketball team. This time around the U.S. team brought home the gold after defeating Spain in the final round.

Early in the 2008-09 season, sports journalists and fans began talking about James's future in the sport. He had the option to become a free agent in 2010, and there was much discussion as to where James would end up. Some journalists identified the New York Knicks as a potential suitor for the rising player. James made several references to his impending free agent status, but he was sure to downplay the matter. "I am focused on the team that I am on right now and winning a championship ... I don't think about making a change at this point," James told reporters.

Shortly after becoming a free agent, however, James announced that he would be joining the Miami Heat for the 2010-11 season. His fans in Cleveland were less than pleased, and many considered his departure a betrayal to his hometown. Soon after James's announcement, Cleveland Cavaliers majority owner Dan Gilbert wrote an open letter declaring James's decision as "selfish," "heartless" and a "cowardly betrayal." Unfazed, James finished second in the league during his first season with the Heat, scoring 26.7 points per game.

Championship Wins

The 2011-12 season also saw major success for James and the Miami Heat; with his team's victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder in the NBA Finals, the superstar forward finally earned his first title. In the clinching Game 5, James scored 26 points, and had 11 rebounds and 13 assists. "I made a difficult decision to leave Cleveland but I understood what my future was about," James told FOX Sports following the game. "I knew we had a bright future [in Miami]."

James competed at his third Olympic Games in 2012, at the Summer Olympics in London, along with teammates Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Kobe Bryant, as well as several other top players. The U.S. basketball team took the gold medal—James's second consecutive Olympic gold.

During the 2012-13 season, James made NBA history yet again: On January 16, 2013, at age 28, he became the youngest player to score 20,000 points, succeeding Kobe Bryant of the Lakers—who accomplished this feat when he was 29—and becoming only the 38th player in NBA history to achieve this distinction. James made a jump shot the final seconds of the game, bringing his scoring total 20,001 and leading the Heat to a 92-75 victory over the Warriors.

Success followed the Heat to the end of the 2012-13 season: Following a hard-fought, six-game series against the Indiana Pacers to win the Eastern Conference, Miami outlasted the San Antonio Spurs in seven games to win its second consecutive NBA championship.

Return to Cavaliers

At the culmination of the 2013-14 season, Miami returned to the NBA Finals to face off against the Spurs again, this time losing to San Antonio after five games. In July of 2014, after opting out of his contract with the Heat and considering other teams, James announced that he would be returning to the Cavaliers.

Hampered by back and knee problems, James missed 13 of 82 regular-season games in 2014-15. However, he was as dominant as ever when healthy, averaging 25.3 points and 7.4 assists per game. James led the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals, becoming the first player in nearly 50 years to reach the championship round in five consecutive seasons. However, injuries to star teammates Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving damaged his hopes of claiming a third title, and the Cavaliers lost to the Golden State Warriors in six games.

The following year, the Cavs overcame the distraction of a midseason coaching change and breezed through the playoffs to earn a rematch with the Warriors, marking the sixth straight NBA Finals appearance for King James. In perhaps the crowning achievement of his career, he led his team back from a 3-1 deficit, scoring 41 points in both Games 5 and 6, before recording a triple double in Game 7 to give the Cavs their first championship in franchise history.

Voted Finals MVP, James said, "I came back to bring a championship to our city. I knew what I was capable of doing. I knew what I learned in the last couple years that I was gone, and I knew if I had to—when I came back—I knew I had the right ingredients and the right blueprint to help this franchise get back to a place that we've never been. That's what it was all about."

Personal Life

Outside of the NBA, James has worked to help others. He established the LeBron James Family Foundation in 2004, along his mother Gloria, to help out children and single-parent families in need. Among its many programs, the organization builds playgrounds in economically disadvantaged areas and hosts an annual bike-a-thon.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/lebron-james-399748

Serena Williams
Serena Williams

09.26.1981 –

American professional tennis player Serena Williams has won 23 Grand Slam singles titles and several Olympic gold medals.

Synopsis

Born in 1981 in Saginaw, Michigan, Serena Williams began intensive tennis training at age 3. She won her first major championship in 1999 and completed the career Grand Slam in 2003. Along with her record-breaking individual success, Williams has teamed with sister Venus to win a series of doubles titles. In 2017, she won her 23rd Grand Slam title at Wimbledon, defeating her older sister Venus in the Australian Open. With her 23rd win, the tennis superstar surpassed Steffi Graf's record and captured the world number one ranking.

Early Life

American tennis player Serena Jameka Williams was born on September 26, 1981, in Saginaw, Michigan. The youngest of Richard and Oracene Williams's five daughters, Serena Williams, along with her sister Venus, would grow up to become one of the sport's great champions.

Serena's father—a former sharecropper from Louisiana determined to see his two youngest girls succeed—used what he'd gleaned from tennis books and videos to instruct Serena and Venus on how to play the game. At the age of 3, practicing on a court not far from the family's new Compton, California, home, Serena withstood the rigors of daily two-hour practices from her father.

The fact that the family had relocated to Compton was no accident. With its high rate of gang activity, Richard Williams wanted to expose his daughters to the ugly possibilities of life "if they did not work hard and get an education." In this setting, on courts that were riddled with potholes and sometimes missing nets, Serena and Venus cut their teeth on the game of tennis and the requirements for persevering in a tough climate.

By 1991, Serena was 46-3 on the junior United States Tennis Association tour, and ranked first in the 10-and-under division. Sensing his girls needed better instruction to become successful professionals, he moved his family again—this time to Florida. There, Richard let go of some of his coaching responsibilities, but not the management of Serena's and Venus's career. Wary of his daughters burning out too quickly, he scaled back their junior tournament schedule.

Tennis Star

In 1995, Serena turned pro. Two years later, she was already No. 99 in the world rankings—up from No. 304 just 12 months before. A year later, she graduated high school, and almost immediately inked a $12 million shoe deal with Puma. In 1999, she beat out her sister in their race to the family's first Grand Slam win, when she captured the U.S. Open title.

It set the stage for a run of high-powered, high-profile victories for both Williams sisters. With their signature style and play, Venus and Serena changed the look of their sport as well. Their sheer power and athletic ability overwhelmed opponents, and their sense of style and presence made them standout celebrities on the court.

In 2002, Serena won the French Open, the U.S. Open, and Wimbledon, defeating Venus in the finals of each tournament. She captured her first Australian Open in 2003, making her one of only six women in the Open era to complete a career Grand Slam. The win also fulfilled her desire to hold all four major titles simultaneously to comprise what she'd dubbed "The Serena Slam." In 2008, she won the U.S. Open and teamed with Venus to capture a second women's doubles Olympic gold medal at the Beijing Games.

But Serena also had her scrapes and losses. She underwent knee surgery in August 2003, and in September her half-sister Yetunde Price was murdered in Los Angeles, California. Three years later, Serena seemed burned out. Bitten by injuries, and just a general lack of motivation to stay fit or compete at the same level she once had, Serena saw her tennis ranking slump to 139.

Serena credited her faith as a Jehovah's Witness, as well as a life-changing journey she made to West Africa for renewing her pride and competitive fire. By 2009, Williams had released a new autobiography, Queen of the Court, and won her place back atop the world's rankings, winning both the 2009 Australian Open singles (for the fourth time) and Wimbledon 2009 singles (for the third time). She also won the doubles matches at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon that year.

But not everything went smoothly. Williams made headlines in September of that year, when she blasted a lineswomen for a foot-fault called near the end of a semifinal loss to eventual champion Kim Clijsters at the U.S. Open. The profanity-laced outburst included finger pointing and, according to the lineswoman, an alleged threat from Serena against her life.

Williams downplayed what happened, refuting the allegation that she'd threatened the woman. But the incident did not go over well with the tennis viewing public, nor the U.S. Tennis Association, which fined her $10,000 on the spot. Two months later, she was placed on two-year probation and ordered to pay another $82,500 to the Grand Slam committee for the episode, the largest punishment ever levied against a tennis player.

By early 2010, however, Serena was doing her best to move past the incident. Sure enough, that year she won the Australian Open singles and doubles matches, as well as her fourth Wimbledon singles championship.

In 2011, Williams suffered a series of health scares, after doctors found a blood clot in one of her lungs, which kept her away from tennis for several months. Following several procedures, including one to remove a hematoma, speculation rose as to whether Williams would retire from the sport. Her health had improved by September 2011, however, and Williams looked like her old dominant self at the U.S. Open before falling to Samantha Stosur in the finals.

Williams stumbled badly at the 2012 French Open, enduring a first-round loss for the first time at a major tournament. But she was back in top form in London that summer, defeating 23-year-old Agnieszka Radwanska in an emotional three sets to claim her fifth Wimbledon singles title and first major championship in two years. Following the win, Williams rushed to her family in the stands, with tears in her eyes, and hugged them for several seconds. In a post-Wimbledon interview with ESPN, she was asked whether she thought she could top the win, and answered: "Are you kidding? The [2012] U.S. Open, the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon 2013."

At the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, Serena beat Maria Sharapova to take her first gold medal in women's singles. The next day, she claimed her fourth overall Olympic gold medal by teaming with sister Venus to defeat Czech Republic stars Andrea Hlavackova and Lucie Hradecka in women's doubles.

Williams continued her winning streak to her next Grand Slam event. In September 2012, she beat out rival Victoria Azarenka to take the singles title at the U.S. Open. According to USA Today, Williams wasn't sure that she'd emerge victorious. "I honestly can't believe I won. I was really reparing my runner-up speech, because I thought, 'Man, she's playing so great.'"

By this time, Williams had captured 15 Grand Slam singles titles and 13 Grand Slam doubles titles. "I would like to leave a mark," Williams once said about her standing in the tennis world. "I think obviously I will, due to the fact that I'm doing something different in tennis. But I don't think I could ever reach something like a Martina Navratilova—I don't think I'd ever play that long—but who knows? I think I'll leave a mark regardless."

In June 2013, Williams took her second French Open title—as well as her 16th Grand Slam singles title—in a 6-4, 6-4 victory over defending champion Sharapova. "I'm still a little bit upset about that loss last year," Williams said in an interview with ESPN following the match. "But it's all about, for me, how you recover. I think I've always said a champion isn't about how much they win, but it's about how they recover from their downs, whether it's an injury or whether it's a loss."

Nearly one month later, Williams competed at Wimbledon, where she suffered a shocking loss (6-2, 1-6, 6-4) in the fourth round to Germany's Sabine Lisicki, the No. 23 seed. Her career-best 34-match winning streak over, Williams told Sports Illustrated, "I don't think it's a huge shock. [Lisicki] is a great player. Her ranking has no effect on what she should be. She should be ranked higher. She just has a super, super game to play well on grass."

At the U.S. Open, Williams made a strong showing. She knocked out her younger rival Sloane Stephens in the fourth round before upending Azarenka to clinch the U.S. Open title. It was the second year in a row that the pair had faced off in the finals.

Williams clinched her third straight and sixth overall U.S. Open singles title in 2014 by defeating her good friend Caroline Wozniacki. Her winning ways carried into the new year, as she beat Sharapova to claim the 2015 Australian Open championship. At the French Open in June, Williams managed to overcome illness to win the tournament for the third time and claim her 20th Grand Slam singles title, good for third place all-time.

"When I was a little girl, in California, my father and my mother wanted me to play tennis," she told the crowd in French after her victory. "And now I'm here, with 20 Grand Slam titles."

Seeking to add to her hardware collection that summer, Williams had to overcome big sister Venus to advance past the fourth round at Wimbledon. A few days later, she defeated Garbine Muguruza in the final to claim her second career "Serena Slam" and become the oldest Grand Slam singles champion in the Open era.

At the 2015 U.S. Open, Williams again squared off with her sister in a tough quarterfinal matchup, this time pulling away in the deciding third set. The outcome left her two wins shy of the calendar year Grand Slam, a feat accomplished by just three women in the sport's history. But it was not to be. In a shocking upset, unseeded Roberta Vinci, ranked No. 43 in the world, dashed Williams's quest by pulling out a 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 win in the semifinals.

Williams opened the next calendar year by advancing to the Australian Open final, where she lost in three sets to Angelique Kerber. After notching career WTA title No. 70 with a win at the Italian Open, she advanced to a French Open final rematch with Muguruza, but this time succumbed to the Spanish player in straight sets.

On July 9, 2016, Williams found her way back to victory, defeating Kerber 7-5, 6-3 at Wimbledon and winning her 22nd grand slam title. With her historic win, Williams tied Steffi Graf for the most major championships in the Open era of professional tennis, which started in 1968.

"I have definitely had some sleepless nights with a lot of stuff, coming so close and feeling it and not being able to get there," Williams told reporters. "This tournament I came in with a different mindset. In Melbourne I thought I played well but Angelique played great, and better. So I knew going into this one I needed to be calm and be confident and play the tennis I've been playing for well over a decade."

Just hours after her singles win, Williams and her older sister Venus won the doubles championship at Wimbledon, their sixth Wimbledon win together.

At the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, the sisters experienced a shocking upset when they were bounced out of the first round of women's doubles at the Rio Olympics by Czech duo Lucie Safarova and Barbora Strycova. The Williams sisters had originally been seeded as no. 1, had an Olympic record of 15-0, and had won gold three times previously.

Later that year at the U.S. Open, Williams suffered another surprising defeat, leaving the competition early after she was defeated by Karolina Pliskova in their semi-final match. With the loss, she also gave up her #1 ranking which she'd held for 186 weeks.

However, Williams came back with a historic victory, winning her 23rd Gram Slam title after defeating her sister Venus 6-4 6-4. With her 23rd win, she surpassed Steffi Graf's record and captured the world number one ranking. Reflecting on her victory, Williams credited her sister as an inspiration. "I would really like to take this moment to congratulate Venus, she is an amazing person," she said. "There is no way I would be at 23 without her. There is no way I would be at one without her. She is my inspiration, she is the only reason. I am standing here today and the only reason that the Williams sisters exist."

Personal Life

Proving to have much more than just tennis clout, Serena expanded her brand into film, television, and fashion. She developed her own "Aneres" line of clothing, and in 2002 People magazine selected her as one of its 25 Most Intriguing People. Essence magazine later called her one of the country's 50 Most Inspiring African-Americans. She's also made television appearances, and lent her voice to shows such as The Simpsons.

Seeking to provide educational opportunities for underprivileged youth around the world, the tennis star formed the Serena Williams Foundation and built schools in Africa. In 2009, Serena and Venus purchased shares of the Miami Dolphins to become the first African-American women to own part of an NFL team.

The close-knit sisters lived together for more than a dozen years in a gated Palm Beach Gardens enclave in Florida, but they went their separate ways after Serena bought a mansion in nearby Jupiter in December 2013.

In December 2016, Williams became engaged to Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, who goes by the handle name "Kn0thing" on the site.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/serena-williams-9532901

Wilma Rudolph
Wilma Rudolph

06.23.1940 – 11.12.1994

In 1960, Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympics.

Synopsis

Born on June 23, 1940, in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, Wilma Rudolph was a sickly child who had to wear a brace on her left leg. She overcame her disabilities to compete in the 1956 Summer Olympic Games, and in 1960, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympics. Later in life, she formed the Wilma Rudolph Foundation to promote amateur athletics. The Olympic great died on November 12, 1994, following a battle with brain cancer.

Early Life

Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born prematurely on June 23, 1940, in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, the 20th of 22 children born to dad Ed across his two marriages. She went on to become a pioneering African-American track and field champion, but the road to victory was not an easy one for Wilma Rudolph. Stricken with double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio as a child, she had problems with her left leg and had to wear a brace. It was with great determination and the help of physical therapy that she was able to overcome her disabilities.

My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.

Growing up in the segregated South, Rudolph attended the all-black Burt High School, where she played on the basketball team. A naturally gifted runner, she was soon recruited to train with Tennessee State University track coach Ed Temple.

Pioneering Olympic Medalist

Nicknamed "Skeeter" for her famous speed, Wilma Rudolph qualified for the 1956 Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. The youngest member of the U.S. track and field team at age 16, she won a bronze medal in the 400-meter relay. After finishing high school, Rudolph enrolled at Tennessee State University, where she studied education. She also trained hard for the next Olympics.

Held in Rome, Italy, the 1960 Olympic Games were a golden time for Rudolph. After tying a world record with her time of 11.3 seconds in the 100-meter semifinals, she won the event with her wind-aided mark of 11.0 seconds in the final. Similarly, Rudolph broke the Olympic record in the 200-meter dash (23.2 seconds) in the heats before claiming another gold medal with her time of 24.0 seconds. She was also part of the U.S. team that established the world record in the 400-meter relay (44.4 seconds) before going on to win gold with a time of 44.5 seconds. As a result, Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympic Games. The first-class sprinter instantly became one of the most popular athletes of the Rome Games as well as an international superstar, lauded around the world for her groundbreaking achievements.

Following the Games, Rudolph made numerous appearances on television and received several honors, including the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year Award in both 1960 and 1961. She retired from competition not long after, and went on to teach, coach and run a community center, among other endeavors, though her accomplishments on the Olympic track remained her best known.

Later Years, Death and Legacy

Rudolph shared her remarkable story with her 1977 autobiography, Wilma, which was turned into a TV film later that year. In the 1980s, she was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and established the Wilma Rudolph Foundation to promote amateur athletics. She died on November 12, 1994, in Brentwood, Tennessee, after losing a battle with brain cancer.

Rudolph is remembered as one of the fastest women in track and as a source of great inspiration for generations of athletes. She once stated, "Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday." In 2004, the United States Postal Service honored the Olympic champion by featuring her likeness on a 23-cent stamp.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/wilma-rudolph-9466552

Jackie Robinson
Jackie Robinson

01.31.1919 – 10.24.1972

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier when he became the first black athlete to play Major League Baseball in the 20th century. He signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and was named Rookie of the Year that year, National League MVP in 1949 and a World Series champ in 1955.

Synopsis

Born January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia, Jackie Robinson became the first black athlete to play Major League Baseball in the 20th century. He signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, and throughout his decade-long career, Robinson distinguished himself as a talented player and a vocal civil rights activist. In 1955, he helped the Dodgers win the World Series. He retired in 1957 with a career batting average of .311. Robinson died in Connecticut in 1972.

Early Life

Jack Roosevelt Robinson was born on January 31, 1919, in Cairo, Georgia. The youngest of five children, Robinson was raised in relative poverty by a single mother. He attended John Muir High School and Pasadena Junior College, where he was an excellent athlete and played four sports: football, basketball, track, and baseball. He was named the region's Most Valuable Player in baseball in 1938.

Robinson's older brother, Matthew Robinson, inspired Jackie to pursue his talent and love for athletics. Matthew won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash—just behind Jesse Owens—at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.

Jackie continued his education at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he became the university's first student to win varsity letters in four sports. In 1941, despite his athletic success, Robinson was forced to leave UCLA just shy of graduation due to financial hardship. He moved to Honolulu, Hawaii, where he played football for the semi-professional Honolulu Bears. His season with the Bears was cut short when the United States entered into World War II.

From 1942 to 1944, Robinson served as a second lieutenant in the United States Army, however, he never saw combat. During boot camp at Fort Hood, Texas, Robinson was arrested and court-martialed in 1944 for refusing to give up his seat and move to the back of a segregated bus. Robinson's excellent reputation, combined with the efforts of friends, the NAACP and various black newspapers, shed public light on the injustice, and he was ultimately acquitted of the charges and received an honorable discharge. His courage and moral objection to segregation were precursors to the impact Robinson would have in major league baseball.

Breaking the Color Barrier

After his discharge from the Army in 1944, Robinson began to play baseball professionally. At the time, the sport was segregated, and African-Americans and whites played in separate leagues. Robinson began playing in the Negro Leagues, but he was soon chosen by Branch Rickey, president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, to help integrate major league baseball. He joined the all-white Montreal Royals, a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers, in 1946. Robinson later moved to Florida to begin spring training with the Royals.

Rickey knew there would be difficult times ahead for the young athlete, and so made Robinson promise to not fight back when confronted with racism. Rickey also personally tested Robinson's reactions to the racial slurs and insults he knew the player would endure. From the beginning of his career with the Dodgers, Robinson's will was tested. Even some of his new teammates objected to having an African-American on their team. People in the crowds sometimes jeered Robinson, and he and his family received threats.

Despite the racial abuse, particularly at away games, Robinson had an outstanding start with the Royals, leading the International League with a .349 batting average and .985 fielding percentage. His successful year led to his promotion to join the Dodgers. Robinson played his first game at Ebbets Field for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947, making history as the first black athlete to play Major League Baseball in the 20th century.

The harassment continued, however, most notably by the Philadelphia Phillies and their manager, Ben Chapman. During one infamous game, Chapman and his team shouted derogatory terms at Robinson from their dugout. Many players on opposing teams threatened not to play against the Dodgers. Even his own teammates threatened to sit out. But Dodgers manager Leo Durocher informed them that he would sooner trade them than Robinson. His loyalty to the player set the tone for the rest of Robinson's career with the team.

Baseball Hero

Others defended Jackie Robinson's right to play in the major leagues, including League President Ford Frick, Baseball Commissioner Happy Chandler, Jewish baseball star Hank Greenberg and Dodgers shortstop and team captain Pee Wee Reese. In one incident, while fans harassed Robinson from the stands, Reese walked over and put his arm around his teammate, a gesture that has become legendary in baseball history.

Robinson succeeded in putting the prejudice and racial strife aside, and showed everyone what a talented player he was. In his first year, he hit 12 home runs and helped the Dodgers win the National League pennant. That year, Robinson led the National League in stolen bases and was selected as Rookie of the Year. He continued to wow fans and critics alike with impressive feats, such as an outstanding .342 batting average during the 1949 season. He led in stolen bases that year and earned the National League's Most Valuable Player Award.

Robinson soon became a hero of the sport, even among former critics, and was the subject of the popular song, "Did You See Jackie Robinson Hit That Ball?" An exceptional base runner, Robinson stole home 19 times in his career, setting a league record. He also became the highest-paid athlete in Dodgers history, and his success in the major leagues opened the door for other African-American players, such as Satchel Paige, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron.

In 1950, Robinson starred in The Jackie Robinson Story, a biographical film directed by Alfred E. Green and co-starring Ruby Dee as Robinson's wife.

A Voice for African-American Athletes

Robinson also became a vocal champion for African-American athletes, civil rights, and other social and political causes. In July 1949, he testified about discrimination before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In 1952, he publicly called out the Yankees as a racist organization for not having broken the color barrier five years after he began playing with the Dodgers.

In his decade-long career with the Dodgers, Robinson and his team won the National League pennant several times. Finally, in 1955, he helped them achieve the ultimate victory: the World Series. After failing before in four other series match-ups, the Dodgers beat the New York Yankees. He helped the team win one more National League pennant the following season, and was then traded to the New York Giants. Jackie Robinson retired shortly after the trade, on January 5, 1957, with an impressive career batting average of .311.

Causes and Legacy

After baseball, Robinson became active in business and continued his work as an activist for social change. He worked as an executive for the Chock Full O' Nuts coffee company and restaurant chain, and helped establish the African American-owned and -controlled Freedom Bank. He served on the board of the NAACP until 1967 and was the first African-American to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962. In 1972, the Dodgers retired his uniform number of 42.

In his later years, Robinson continued to lobby for greater integration in sports. He died from heart problems and diabetes complications on October 24, 1972, in Stamford, Connecticut. He was survived by his wife, Rachel Isum Robinson, and two of their three children. After his death, his wife established the Jackie Robinson Foundation dedicated to honoring his life and work. The foundation helps young people in need by providing scholarships and mentoring programs.

Robinson’s life was the subject of the acclaimed 2013 Brian Helgeland film 42, which starred Chadwick Boseman as Jackie Robinson and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey. In 2016, filmmaker Ken Burns premiered a documentary about the baseball legend on PBS.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/jackie-robinson-9460813

Simone Biles
Simone Biles

03.14.1997 –

Simone Biles is the most decorated American gymnast, winning 19 Olympic and World Championship medals.

Synopsis

Born in Ohio in 1997, Simone Biles has become one of America’s top gymnasts. After dominating at the junior elite level, she won her first U.S. and world all-around titles in 2013. In 2015, she claimed a record third straight world all-around title. She went on to lead the U.S. Olympic women's gymnastics team, nicknamed "The Final Five," to win gold at the 2016 Summer Games, and dominated the competition, winning gold in the women's individual all-around, vault and floor exercise and bronze in the balance beam. With 19 Olympic and World Championship medals, she is the most decorated American gymnast.

Early Life

Born on March 14, 1997, in Columbus, Ohio, gymnast Simone Biles has emerged as a champion in her sport. She and her sister, Adria, were raised by their grandfather Ron and grandmother Nellie, after their mother’s struggle with substance abuse problem.

Ron and Nellie eventually officially adopted the two girls, and Biles calls her grandmother “Mom.” Nellie has been a constant source of support through Biles’s rise in the world of competitive athletics; as the gymnast told CNN, “She encourages me and never lets me feel down about something for too long.”

Biles discovered her abilities at an early age. According to the official USA Gymnastics website, she visited a gymnastics center on a field trip with her day care group, noting, “While there I imitated the other gymnasts, and Coach Ronnie noticed. The gym sent home a letter requesting that I join tumbling or gymnastics.” Very soon, Biles was on her way to developing those natural gifts.

Top U.S. Gymnast

Simone Biles began competing as a level 8 gymnast in 2007, and by 2011 she had cemented her standing at the junior elite level. That year, she 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 at the senior elite level, bursting into the spotlight as the all-around winner at the 2013 U.S. P&G Championships. Also that year, she delivered a historic showing at the World Championships by becoming the first female African-American athlete to win gold in the all-around. As she explained to The Hollywood Reporter, this impressive victory likely served as an example to other young gymnasts: "I think it inspires a lot of the little girls out there to go in the gym and train harder," she said.

Biles continued to build on her successes in 2014, again taking the U.S. and world titles in the all-around competition. She also won gold in the vault, floor exercise, balance beam and all-around at the Secret U.S. Classic that same year. During her floor routines, Biles often executed what has become her signature move: a double-flip with a half-twist.

In 2015, Biles became the first woman to win her third consecutive world all-around title, giving her a record 10 gold medals at the international competition. Considered one of the country’s top Olympic hopefuls, she then resumed training for Rio 2016 at World Champions Centre, which is owned by her family, in Spring, Texas.

In July 2016, Biles wowed gymnastics fans with an impressive performance, winning the all-around title and first in the floor exercise and vault. She earned a spot on the 2016 Olympic team along with fellow gymnasts Laurie Hernandez, Aly Raisman, Gabby Douglas, and Madison Kocian.

2016 Olympic Games in Rio

On August 9, 2016, Biles led the U.S. women’s gymnastics team to win the gold. She earned an impressive 15.933 in the vault, a 15.3 on balance beam, and 15.8 for a crowd-pleasing floor routine in which she performed “the Biles,” her signature move comprised of a double layout with a half twist. The powerhouse gymnast shared the victory with Raisman, Douglas, Hernandez and Kocian, a team which calls themselves “The Final Five.”

Raisman explained the meaning behind the team nickname on the Today Show: “We're the Final Five because this is [coach] Marta [Karolyi's] last Olympics and without her none of this would have been possible . . .We wanted to do it for her just because she's there with us every single day.”

She added: "This is the last Olympics where there's a five-girl team. The next Olympics is only going to be a four-person team."

The Final Five are the third American women’s gymnastic team to win gold, following team victories in 1996 and 2012. After taking the team gold, Biles tweeted “dreams DO come true” and a photo of the U.S. team on the medal podium.

Biles continued to dominate the Olympic competition, winning the women's individual all-around gold medal. U.S. teammate Aly Raisman and Russian gymnast Aliya Mustafina won silver and bronze, respectively. What made Biles' victory truly historical was that she achieved a 2.1 margin of victory over Raisman — a lead that was larger than any gymnast from 1980 to 2012 combined. She also became the first woman in two decades to win back-to-back Olympic all-around and world titles.

She went on to win gold again in the women's individual vault competition with a score of 15.966, but faltered in the individual balance beam event. In a rare stumble, Biles fought to maintain her balance, scoring 14.733, which earned her the bronze medal. Teammate Laurie Hernandez landed the silver medal, and Sanne Wevers of the Netherlands won gold. “The rest of the routine was still pretty good,” Biles said, according to USA Today, “so I can’t be too disappointed in myself.”

Biles continued her Olympic run in the individual floor exercise, taking the gold in a brilliant performance, which incorporated her signature move "the Biles," a double layout with a half-twist and blind landing. With a score of 15.966, Biles earned her fourth gold medal in Rio. Biles joined only three other gymnasts who have won four gold medals in a single Olympic Games — Larisa Latynina of the Soviet Union in 1956, Vera Caslavska of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Ecaterina Szabo of Romania in 1984. Biles's teammate Raisman took the silver in the floor exercise and Amy Tinkler of Great Britain won bronze.

With 19 Olympic and World Championship medals, Biles made history as the most decorated American gymnast.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/simone-biles-051816

Jesse Owens
Jesse Owens

09.12.1913 – 03.31.1980

American track-and-field athlete Jesse Owens won four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. His long jump world record stood for 25 years.

Synopsis

Jesse Owens, also known as "The Buckeye Bullet," was born on September 12, 1913, in Oakville, Alabama. In high school, he won three track and field events at the 1933 National Interscholastic Championships. Two years later, while competing for Ohio State University, he equaled one world record and broke three others. In 1936 Owens won four gold medals at the Olympic Games in Berlin. Owens died from cancer on March 31, 1980.

Early Years

The son of a sharecropper and the grandson of slaves, Jesse Owens was born James Cleveland Owens on September 12, 1913, in Oakville, Alabama. A frail child, Owens was often sick from his battles with chronic bronchial congestion and pneumonia. Still, he was expected to work, and at the young age of seven he was picking up to 100 pounds of cotton a day to help his family put food on the table.

At the age of 9, Owens moved with his family to Cleveland, Ohio, where the young "J.C." discovered a world far different than the slower, southern life he'd known. School proved to be one of the bigger changes. Gone was the one-room schoolhouse he'd attended in Alabama, replaced by a bigger setting with stricter teachers. Here, Owens earned the nickname that would stick with him the rest of his life: One of his instructors, unable to decipher his thick southern accent, believed the young athlete said his name was "Jesse," when he in fact had said "J.C."

Rising Star

At East Technical High School, Owens quickly made a name for himself as a nationally recognized sprinter, setting records in the 100 and 200-yard dashes as well as the long jump. After graduating, Owens enrolled at The Ohio State University ,where he continued to flourish as an athlete.

At the 1935 Big Ten Championships, the "Buckeye Bullet," as he was also known, overcame a severe tailbone injury and tied a world record in the 100-yard dash—and set a long jump record of 26-8 ¼ that would stand for 25 years. Owens also set new world marks in the 220-yard dash and in the 220-yard low hurdles.

His dominance at the Big Ten games was par for the course for Owens that year, which saw him win four events at the NCAA Championships, two events at the AAU Championships and three others at the Olympic trials. In all, Owens competed in 42 events that year, winning them all.

1936 Olympic Games

For Adolph Hitler and the Nazis, the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games were expected to be a German showcase and a statement for Aryan supremacy. Most notably, Hitler lambasted America for including black athletes on its Olympic roster.

But it was the African-American participants who helped cement America's success at the Olympic Games. In all, the United States won 11 gold medals, six of them by black athletes. Owens was easily the most dominant athlete to compete. He captured four gold medals (the 100 meter, the long jump, the 200 meter and the 400-meter relay), and broke two Olympic records along the way. Owens record for the world broad jump would last 25 years until being broken by Olympian Irvin Roberson in 1960. After Owens won the 100-meter event, a furious Hitler stormed out of the stadium, though some reports indicate that Hitler later congratulated the athlete on his success.

While Owens helped the U.S. triumph at the games, his return home was not met with the kind of fanfare one might expect. President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to meet with Owens and congratulate him, as was typical for champions. The athlete wouldn't be properly recognized until 1976, when President Gerald Ford awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The mild-mannered Owens seemed not the least bit surprised by his home country's hypocrisy. "When I came back to my native country, after all the stories about Hitler, I couldn't ride in the front of the bus," he said. "I had to go to the back door. I couldn't live where I wanted. I wasn't invited to shake hands with Hitler, but I wasn't invited to the White House to shake hands with the president, either."

Later Years

Following the 1936 Olympic Games, Owens retired from amateur athletics and started to earn money for his physical talents. He raced against cars and horses, and, for a time, played with the Harlem Globetrotters.

Owens eventually found his calling in public relations and marketing, setting up a business for himself in Chicago, Illinois, and traveling frequently around the country to speak at conventions and other business gatherings.

Jesse Owens, who smoked up to a pack of cigarettes a day for a good deal of his life, died of lung cancer in Tucson, Arizona, on March 31, 1980.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/jesse-owens-9431142

Muhammad Ali
Muhammad Ali

01.17.1942 – 06.03.2016

Arguably boxing's most celebrated athlete, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was also known for his public stance against the Vietnam War and his longtime battle with Parkinson's disease.

Synopsis

Born Cassius Clay in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1942, Muhammad Ali became an Olympic gold medalist in 1960 and the world heavyweight boxing champion in 1964. Following his suspension for refusing military service, Ali reclaimed the heavyweight title two more times during the 1970s, winning famed bouts against Joe Frazier and George Foreman along the way. Diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1984, Ali devoted much of his time to philanthropy, earning the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2005. He died on June 3, 2016, in Phoenix, Arizona.

Early Life

Boxer, philanthropist and social activist Muhammad Ali was born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. on January 17, 1942, in Louisville, Kentucky. Ali showed at an early age that he wasn't afraid of any bout—inside or outside of the ring. Growing up in the segregated South, he experienced racial prejudice and discrimination firsthand.

At the age of 12, Ali discovered his talent for boxing through an odd twist of fate. His bike was stolen, and Ali told a police officer, Joe Martin, that he wanted to beat up the thief. "Well, you better learn how to fight before you start challenging people," Martin reportedly told him at the time. In addition to being a police officer, Martin also trained young boxers at a local gym.

Ali started working with Martin to learn how to spar, and soon began his boxing career. In his first amateur bout in 1954, he won the fight by split decision. Ali went on to win the 1956 Golden Gloves tournament for novices in the light heavyweight class. Three years later, he won the National Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions, as well as the Amateur Athletic Union's national title for the light heavyweight division.

Olympic Gold

In 1960, Ali won a spot on the U.S. Olympic boxing team, and traveled to Rome, Italy, to compete. At 6' 3", Ali was an imposing figure in the ring, but he also became known for his lightning speed and fancy footwork. After winning his first three bouts, Ali defeated Zbigniew Pietrzkowski from Poland to win the light heavyweight gold medal.

After his Olympic victory, Ali was heralded as an American hero. He soon turned professional with the backing of the Louisville Sponsoring Group, and continued overwhelming all opponents in the ring. Ali took out British heavyweight champion Henry Cooper in 1963, and then knocked out Sonny Liston in 1964 to become the heavyweight champion of the world.

Often referring to himself as "the greatest," Ali was not afraid to sing his own praises. He was known for boasting about his skills before a fight and for his colorful descriptions and phrases. In one of his more famously quoted descriptions, Ali told reporters that he could "float like a butterfly, sting like a bee" in the boxing ring.

Conversion to Islam and Suspension

This bold public persona belied what was happening in Ali's personal life, however. He was doing some spiritual searching and decided to join the black Muslim group the Nation of Islam in 1964. At first he called himself "Cassius X" before settling on the name Muhammad Ali. (The boxer eventually converted to orthodox Islam during the 1970s.)

Ali later started a different kind of fight with his outspoken views against the Vietnam War. Drafted into the military in April 1967, he refused to serve on the grounds that he was a practicing Muslim minister with religious beliefs that prevented him from fighting. He was arrested for committing a felony and almost immediately stripped of his world title and boxing license.

The U.S. Department of Justice pursued a legal case against Ali, denying his claim for conscientious objector status. He was found guilty of violating Selective Service laws and sentenced to five years in prison in June 1967, but remained free while appealing his conviction. Unable to compete professionally in the meantime, Ali missed more than three prime years of his athletic career. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned the conviction in June 1971.

Boxing Comeback

Prior to the Supreme Court's decision, Ali returned to the ring in 1970 with a win over Jerry Quarry. The following year, Ali took on Joe Frazier in what has been called the "Fight of the Century." Frazier and Ali went toe-to-toe for 14 rounds before Frazier dropped Ali with a vicious left hook in the 15th. Ali recovered quickly, but the judges awarded the decision to Frazier, handing Ali his first professional loss after 31 wins. Ali soon suffered a second loss, to Ken Norton, but he beat Frazier in a 1974 rematch.

Another legendary Ali fight, against undefeated heavyweight champion George Foreman, took place in 1974. Billed as the "Rumble in the Jungle," the bout was organized by promoter Don King and held in Kinshasa, Zaire. For once, Ali was seen as the underdog to the younger, massive Foreman, but he silenced his critics with a masterful performance. He baited Foreman into throwing wild punches with his "rope-a-dope" technique, before stunning his opponent with an eighth-round knockout to reclaim the heavyweight title.

Ali and Frazier locked horns for their grudge match in Quezon City, Philippines, in 1975. Dubbed the "Thrilla in Manila," the bout nearly went the distance, with both men delivering and absorbing tremendous punishment. However, Frazier's trainer threw in the towel after the 14th round, giving the hard-fought victory to Ali.

After losing his title to Leon Spinks in February 1978, Ali defeated him in a September rematch, becoming the first boxer to win the heavyweight championship three times. Following a brief retirement, he returned to the ring to face Larry Holmes in 1980, but was overmatched against the younger champion. Following one final loss in 1981, to Trevor Berbick, the boxing great retired from the sport.

Philanthropy and Diagnosis of Parkinson's

In his retirement, Ali devoted much of his time to philanthropy. He announced that he had Parkinson's disease in 1984, a degenerative neurological condition, and was involved in raising funds for the Muhammad Ali Parkinson Center in Phoenix, Arizona. Over the years, Ali also supported the Special Olympics and the Make-A-Wish Foundation, among other organizations. In 1996, he lit the Olympic cauldron at the Summer Olympic Games in Atlanta, an emotional moment in sports history.

Ali traveled to numerous countries, including Mexico and Morocco, to help out those in need. In 1998, he was chosen to be a United Nations Messenger of Peace because of his work in developing nations.

In 2005, Ali received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. He also opened the Muhammad Ali Center in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, that same year. "I am an ordinary man who worked hard to develop the talent I was given," he said. "Many fans wanted to build a museum to acknowledge my achievements. I wanted more than a building to house my memorabilia. I wanted a place that would inspire people to be the best that they could be at whatever they chose to do, and to encourage them to be respectful of one another."

Despite the progression of Parkinson's and the onset of spinal stenosis, Ali remained active in public life. He was on hand to celebrate the inauguration of the first African-American president in January 2009, when Barack Obama was sworn into office. Soon after the inauguration, Ali received the President's Award from the NAACP for his public service efforts.

Death and Legacy

Things began taking a turn for the worse within a few years. In early 2015, Ali was hospitalized for a severe urinary tract infection after having battled pneumonia. He was hospitalized again in early June 2016 for what was reportedly a respiratory issue. The revered athlete passed away on the evening of June 3, 2016, at a Phoenix, Arizona facility.

Ali was survived by his fourth wife, Yolanda ("Lonnie"), whom he had been married to since 1986. The couple had one son, Asaad, and Ali had several children from previous relationships, including daughter Laila Ali, who followed in his footsteps by becoming a champion boxer.

Years before his passing, Ali had planned his own memorial services, saying he wanted to be “inclusive of everyone, where we give as many people an opportunity that want to pay their respects to me,” according to a family spokesman. The three-day event, which took place in Ali’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, included an “I Am Ali” festival of public arts, entertainment and educational offerings sponsored by the city, an Islamic prayer program and a memorial service.

Prior to the memorial service, a funeral procession traveled 20 miles through Louisville, past Ali’s childhood home, his high school, the first boxing gym where he trained and along Muhammad Ali Boulevard as tens of thousands of fans tossed flowers on his hearse and cheered his name. The champ’s memorial service was held at the KFC Yum Center arena with close to 20,000 people in attendance. Speakers included religious leaders from various faiths, Attallah Shabazz, Malcom X’s eldest daughter, broadcaster Bryant Gumbel, former President Bill Clinton, comedian Billy Crystal, Ali’s daughters Maryum and Rasheda and his widow Lonnie.

"Muhammad indicated that when the end came for him, he wanted us to use his life and his death as a teaching moment for young people, for his country and for the world," Lonnie said. "In effect, he wanted us to remind people who are suffering that he had seen the face of injustice. That he grew up during segregation, and that during his early life he was not free to be who he wanted to be. But he never became embittered enough to quit or to engage in violence."

Former President Clinton spoke about how Ali found self-empowerment: "I think he decided, before he could possibly have worked it all out, and before fate and time could work their will on him, he decided he would not ever be disempowered. He decided that not his race nor his place, the expectations of others, positive, negative or otherwise would strip from him the power to write his own story."

Crystal, who was a struggling comedian when he became friends with Ali, said of the boxing legend: “Ultimately, he became a silent messenger for peace, who taught us that life is best when you build bridges between people, not walls.”

"You have inspired us and the world to be the best version of ourselves,' Rasheda Ali spoke to her father. 'May you live in paradise free from suffering. You shook up the world in life now you're shaking up the world in death. Now you are free to be with your creator. We love you so much Daddy. Until we meet again, fly butterfly, fly."

Pallbearers included actor Will Smith, who played the champ in the biopic Ali (2001), and former heavyweight champions Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis. Ali was buried at the Cave Hill National Cemetery in Louisville.

Universally regarded as one of the greatest boxers in history, Ali's stature as a legend continues to grow even after his death. He is celebrated not only for his remarkable athletic skills but for his willingness to speak his mind and his courage to challenge the status quo.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/muhammad-ali-9181165

ArthurAshe
Arthur Ashe

07.10.1943 – 02.06.1993

Arthur Ashe is the first African American to win the men's singles at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, and the first African-American man to be ranked No. 1 in the world.

Synopsis

Born on July 10, 1943, in Richmond, Virginia, Arthur Ashe became the first, and is still the only, African-American male tennis player to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. He is also the first African-American man to be ranked as the No. 1 tennis player in the world. Always an activist, when Ashe learned that he had contracted AIDS via a blood transfusion, he turned his efforts to raising awareness about the disease, before finally succumbing to it on February 6, 1993.

Younger Years

Arthur Robert Ashe Jr. was born on July 10, 1943, in Richmond, Virginia. The oldest of Arthur Ashe Sr. and Mattie Cunningham's two sons, Arthur Ashe Jr. blended finesse and power to forge a groundbreaking tennis game. Ashe would go on to achieve a number of African-American "firsts," including becoming the first African-American male player to win the U.S. Open (1968) and Wimbeldon (1975), the first African-American man to be ranked No. 1 in the world (1975), and the first African-American man to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame (1985).

Ashe's childhood was marked by hardship and opportunity. Under his mother's direction, Ashe was reading by the age of 4. But his life was turned upside-down two years later, when Mattie passed away.

Ashe's father, fearful of seeing his boys fall into trouble without their mother's discipline, began running a tighter ship at home. Ashe and his younger brother Johnnie went to church every Sunday, and after school were required to come straight home. Arthur Sr. even clocked the distance: "My father . . .kept me home, out of trouble. I had exactly 12 minutes to get home from school, and I kept to that rule through high school."

Early Tennis Career

About a year after his mother's death, Arthur discovered the game of tennis, picking up a racket for the first time at the age of 7 at a park not far from his home. Sticking with the game, Ashe eventually caught the attention of Dr. Robert Walter Johnson Jr., a tennis coach from Lynchburg, Virginia, who was active in the black tennis community. Under Johnson's direction, Ashe excelled.

In his first tournament, Ashe reached the junior national championships. Driven to excel, he eventually moved to St. Louis to work closely with another coach, winning the junior national title in 1960 and again in 1961. Ranked the fifth best junior player in the country, Ashe accepted a scholarship at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he graduated with a degree in business administration.

African-American 'Firsts'

IIn 1963, Ashe became the first African American to be recruited by the U.S. Davis Cup team. He continued to refine his game, gaining the attention of his tennis idol, Pancho Gonzales, who further helped Ashe hone his serve-and-volley attack. The training all came together in 1968, when the still-amateur Ashe shocked the world by capturing the U.S. Open title—becoming the first, and still the only, African-American male player to do so. Two years later, he took home the Australian title.

In 1975, Ashe registered another upset by beating Jimmy Connors in the Wimbledon finals, marking another pioneering achievement within the African-American community—becoming the first African-American male player to win Wimbledon—which, like his U.S. Open victory, remains unmatched. That same year (1975), Ashe became the first African-American man to be ranked No. 1 in the world. Ten years later, in 1985, he would become the first African American man to be inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

For Ashe, however, success also brought opportunity and responsibility. He didn't relish his status as the sole black star in a game dominated by white players, but he didn't run away from it either. With his unique pulpit, he pushed to create inner city tennis programs for youth; helped found the Association of Men's Tennis Professionals; and spoke out against apartheid in South Africa—even going so far as to successfully lobby for a visa so he could visit and play tennis there.

Health Problems

Ashe's causes were shaped by both his own personal story and his health. In 1979, he retired from competition after suffering a heart attack, and wrote a history of African-American athletes: A Hard Road to Glory (three volumes, published in 1988). He also served as national campaign chairman of the American Heart Association.

Ashe was plagued with health issues over the last 14 years of his life. After undergoing a quadruple bypass operation in 1979, he had a second bypass operation in 1983. In 1988, he underwent emergency brain surgery after experiencing paralysis of his right arm. A biopsy taken during a hospital stay revealed that Ashe had AIDS. Doctors soon discovered that Ashe had contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, from a transfusion of blood that he was given during his second heart operation.

Political Activism

Initially, Ashe kept the news hidden from the public. But in 1992, Ashe came forward with the news after he learned that USA Today was working on a story about his health battle. Finally free from the burden of trying to hide his condition, Ashe poured himself into the work of raising awareness about the disease. He delivered a speech at the United Nations, started a new foundation, and laid the groundwork for a $5 million fundraising campaign for the institution.

He continued to work, even as his health began to deteriorate, traveling to Washington, D.C. in late 1992 to participate in a protest over the United States' treatment of Haitian refugees. For his part in the demonstration, Ashe was taken away in handcuffs. It was a poignant final display for a man who was never shy about showing his concern for the welfare of others.

Death and Legacy

Arthur Ashe died in New York City on February 6, 1993, from AIDS-related pneumonia. Four days later, he was laid to rest in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. Some 6,000 people attended the service.

In addition to his pioneering tennis career, Ashe is remembered as an inspirational figure. He once said: "True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost." He also offered words of words about achieving success: "One important key to success is self-confidence. An important key to self-confidence is preparation."

Ashe was married to Jeanne Moutoussamy from 1977 until his death in 1993. They had one daughter, Camera.

Source: biography.com | http://www.biography.com/people/arthur-ashe-9190544