Wilma Rudolph

Jul 10th, 2011 | By | Category: Sports
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Wilma Rudolph1940-1994  Wilma Rudolph overcame polio to become a successful athlete and the first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals. Her groundbreaking success made her a national hero and paved the way for generations of women of color to compete in track and field.

Stricken with Polio

When Rudolph was born in Bethlehem, Tennessee, on June 23, 1940, she was delivered prematurely and weighed just 4 1/2 pounds. Her father, Edward Rudolph, a railroad worker, had married twice, and Rudolph was the 20th of his 22 children. Her mother, Blanche, and her many siblings shepherded the sickly Rudolph, first through double pneumonia, then scarlet fever and polio. When she was six years old, polio affected the use of her left leg, and Rudolph was forced to wear metal leg braces. Because the local hospital refused to accept black patients, her mother drove Rudolph 90 miles round-trip to a Nashville hospital for treatment each week. There, at a black medical college, doctors guided Rudolph through physical therapy exercises, which her siblings dutifully reproduced with her at home. Although she also suffered through whooping cough, measles, and chicken pox, she was able to say good-bye to leg braces and orthopedic shoes by age 12.

Free from the cumbersome braces and finally healthy, Rudolph promptly began to pursue an interest in sports. She quickly graduated from playing basketball with her brothers and sisters to joining the junior high girls’ basketball team in nearby Clarksville. By high school, she had become a star player, setting a state record for the most points in one game. Rudolph’s speed on the court caught the eye of Tennessee State track coach Ed Temple, who invited the young basketball star to participate in track practice at Tennessee State. Under Temple’s tutelage, she entered the Amateur Athletic Union track and field competition, a national event, and won both the 75- and 100-meter races. At just 16 years of age, Rudolph earned a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team for the 1956 games in Melbourne, Australia. The youngest member of the track team, she brought home a bronze medal in the 4×100 meter relay. After the Olympics, Rudolph returned to her all-black high school in still segregated Tennessee. When Tennessee State offered her a full scholarship, she accepted. Rudolph majored in education, and trained diligently for the next Olympics.

Olympic Glory

At the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Italy, Rudolph became a hero. She had trained hard with Temple, who was the women’s U.S. Olympic Team coach as well as the Tennessee State coach, and it showed. Earlier in 1960, Rudolph had set a world record in the 200-meter sprint at the U.S. Championships. During the Olympic trials, she ran the 200 meter in a world record-setting 22.9 seconds. In Rome, she won the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 4×100 meter relay events, becoming the first American woman to earn three gold medals. Immediately, she was dubbed the “fastest woman alive.” Fans in Rome adored her incredible speed, good looks, and quiet grace. Traveling the European competition circuit in 1961, she was mobbed by fans throughout the continent. The French affectionately nicknamed her “The Black Pearl,” and the Italians called her “The Black Gazelle.” That year, she received the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete, only the third woman to be so honored. The Associated Press named her Woman Athlete of the Year in 1960 and again in 1961. When she returned home from Rome, Tennessee’s segregationist governor, Buford Ellington, was forced, at Rudolph’s insistence, to make the parade and banquet open to Blacks along with Whites. These were the first integrated events her hometown had ever hosted.

After this unprecedented success, Rudolph retired from competition at age 22. She graduated from Tennessee State with a degree in education, returned home to Clarksville, and married her high school sweetheart Robert Eldridge. The young couple had four children, and Rudolph taught at her old elementary school and became track coach at the same high school where she herself had been discovered.

But Rudolph didn’t settle into obscurity. In 1963, she was named a Goodwill Ambassador to the Games of Friendship in Senegal. She became a popular speaker and was a guest at schools across the country. Her experience made her a valuable commentator on television and radio sports broadcasts. In the late 1960s, Rudolph became involved in a national outreach program for young inner-city athletes, and the experience inspired her to form the Wilma Rudolph Foundation that provided free coaching and mentoring to young, underprivileged athletes. Her biography, Wilma, became a television movie that brought her story to a new generation of young athletes. In 1974, she was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, and in 1983, she was among the first group inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Rudolph remained active as a speaker and mentor.

Rudolph was only 54 years old when she succumbed to brain cancer on November 12, 1994, at her home near Nashville. The illness was sudden and devastating. Rudolph had triumphed over tremendous odds in the segregated south, surviving a precipitous birth and beating polio to become a national hero. Her Olympic success was instrumental in encouraging athletes like Florence Griffith Joyner, who won three gold medals at the 1988 Olympic games in Seoul, and Rudolph was proud of the women who succeeded her. At a time when black students weren’t permitted to go to class with Whites, and girls were forbidden to wear pants to school, one polio survivor from Tennessee showed the whole world what African American women could do.


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