Wilma Glodean Rudolph
June 23, 1940 – November 12, 1994
Notable: Track & Field Athlete
Wilma Rudolph was born into a poor family in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, her father’s 20th child out of the 22 children produced by his two marriages. She was born prematurely weighing just four-and-a-half pounds, a precursor to the health issues that would plague her childhood. As a sickly child, a lot of her time was spent in bed as a result of battling double pneumonia, scarlet fever, whooping cough, measles, and other illnesses. But Rudolph’s contraction of polio at age six would have a severe and long-term impact on her physical abilities.
Rudolph’s bout of polio paralyzed her left leg and required her to wear a metal brace. Her doctor believed that the leg would remain permanently paralyzed and Rudolph would never walk again. But her mother had faith which encouraged Rudolph to believe that in time she would walk again. Each week her mother traveled with her to Nashville for doctor visits and her father and siblings also pitched in to offer care and support by taking turns massaging her leg.
Regaining the ability to walk was a slow process but she was able to hop on one leg at six years old and at eight years old could walk wearing the leg brace. Rudolph’s leg brace was removed at age nine and one day her mother found her running and playing basketball when she was 11-years-old. She had longed to run, play, and otherwise be a “normal” kid and with her determination and support from her family, she was eventually able to achieve her goal of running and playing.
Yet, she surpassed being a normal child and instead became an incredibly gifted athlete. Rudolph didn’t just run. She ran fast. And she didn’t just play. She was a fierce competitor. By high school, she was a star on her school’s basketball team, set a state record after scoring 49 points in a game, and was voted all-American.
Rudolph’s basketball coach was asked by Ed Temple, the Tennessee State track coach, to form a girls’ track team. As a fast forward on the basketball team, she was selected for the new track team as a sprinter. Despite still being in high school, she began training and competing with Temple’s college team.
Coach Temple was incredibly committed to the team, going so far as to use his own resources to help the girls train and travel. With his guidance and support, Rudolph became the youngest member of the 1956 U.S. Olympic track and field team. At the age of 16, she traveled with the team to Melbourne, Australia where she won a bronze medal as part of the 400-meter relay team.
Upon her return, Rudolph resumed her high school studies while also continuing with basketball and track and field. But, her basketball career permanently ended when she became pregnant during her senior year. After giving birth to her first child, she was eventually able to return to running and later qualified for the 1960 U.S. Olympic team.
When Rudolph arrived in Rome with the Olympic team, she was accompanied by familiar faces. Coach Temple was the U.S. team coach and most of her Olympic teammates were also her teammates on the Tennessee State team. Rudolph placed first in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and 400-meter relay team becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympic Games. During the games, she set and tied solo records in the heats and semifinals and was part of the team that set a new relay record. Her performance garnered international attention and she became one of the most popular athletes at the Olympics.
Rudolph’s triumphant return to America was celebrated with a hero’s welcome. She had attended segregated schools and lived under the system of Jim Crow. But here she yielded her influence by stating that she wouldn’t attend the welcome home festivities if they were segregated. And with that, her celebratory banquet and parade were her hometown’s first integrated events.
She balanced academics with athletics for two more years, continuing with track and field while completing her degree in education. After ending her career as an athlete, Rudolph shifted her focus to working with children and young adults as a teacher and coach. Rudolph served as a goodwill ambassador to French West Africa, worked at community centers, and established a non-profit amateur sports program that worked with track and field athletes.
She would win numerous athletic awards during the 1960s followed by inductions into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame (1973), National Track and Field Hall of Fame (1974), International Sports Hall of Fame (1980), and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame (1983). In 1977, Rudolph published an autobiography entitled Wilma which NBC then made into a TV movie.
Wilma Rudolph died on November 12, 1994, from brain and throat cancer at the age of 54. She was survived by her four children.
- Biography.com Editors, ed. 2021. “Wilma Rudolph.” Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. January 7, 2021. https://www.biography.com/athlete/wilma-rudolph.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, ed. 2020. “Wilma Rudolph.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. November 8, 2020. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Wilma-Rudolph.
- Norwood, Arlisha R. 2017. “Wilma Rudolph.” National Women’s History Museum. 2017. https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/wilma-rudolph.
- Roberts, M.B. n.d. “Rudolph Ran and World Went Wild.” ESPN. ESPN Internet Ventures. Accessed April 12, 2021. https://www.espn.com/sportscentury/features/00016444.html.
- “Wilma Rudolph.” 2019. United States Olympic & Paralympic Museum. October 10, 2019. https://usopm.org/wilma-rudolph/.
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