Atlanta native Mildred McDaniel excelled in basketball and gained fame in track and field by winning Olympic gold and setting a world record in the high jump. Born on November 3, 1933, to Victoria and Claude McDaniel, Mildred was the youngest of three children. She was a reluctant athlete who became interested in basketball and the high jump by accident. She began playing basketball only after her gym teacher at David T. Howard High School offered any girl who made ten consecutive free throws a new pair of shoes and a place on the team. McDaniel got the shoes.
Once on the team McDaniel found she loved basketball and was very good, often earning high scorer honors. In the off-season most basketball players competed in track and field, but again she was uninterested. The school’s track coach, Marian Armstrong-Perkins, who had already sent three athletes to the Olympics, persuaded her to come watch track practice. While observing a girl practice the high jump, McDaniel commented to herself that the girl could not jump. Armstrong-Perkins overheard McDaniel and challenged her to jump. She was soon hooked and added hurdles, the broad jump, and the relay team to her repertoire. Besides capturing two state championships in basketball, McDaniel won state titles in the eighty-yard hurdles, the high jump, and the long jump.
After graduating from high school in 1952 McDaniel enrolled at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where she concentrated on the high jump under Cleveland Abbott, a Hall of Fame coach. McDaniel won the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) outdoor high jump titles in 1953, 1955, and 1956 as well as indoor high jump titles in 1955 and 1956. She set the indoor jump standard of 5 feet 4 inches in 1956. In the international arena she set records in the 1955 Pan-American Games in Mexico City, Mexico, and in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Although she accrued a solid record, no one in Melbourne expected her to win a medal. After eliminating the competition, she overheard an official say that she could not jump any higher than 5 feet 8 inches. McDaniel had the bar raised to 5 feet 9 1/4 inches. Although she missed the first jump, she cleared the bar on her second attempt, but she also pulled a muscle, which prevented her from competing in the British Empire Games. McDaniel was only the second female to win the gold medal in the high jump. (Alice Coachman was the first.)
In 1957 McDaniel graduated with a degree in physical education, was named Woman of the Year (Atlanta), won the AAU’s Sullivan Award for sportsmanship, and had her picture on a postage stamp in the Dominican Republic. In 1958 she married Louis Singleton and moved to California, where she taught and coached for more than thirty-two years. She was inducted into the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in 1983 and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1983.
McDaniel died on September 30, 2004, in Pasadena, California, of cancer at the age of seventy.