Wilma Rudolph was an African-American Olympian. She overcame huge odds as a child to go on and win three gold medals and one bronze in track and field.
Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born on June 23, 1940, in Clarksville, Tennessee. She was the 20th child of 22. Her parents were hardworking, but very poor. Her father, Ed, worked as a railroad porter and handyman while her mother, Blanche, cooked and cleaned for wealthy white families.
Wilma was born prematurely and weighed only 4.5 pounds. The one hospital in town was for whites only. Wilma's mother spent several years of nursing her through one illness after another, including measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox and double pneumonia. When the family noticed that her left leg and foot were becoming weak and deformed, they took her to the only black doctor in town. The diagnosis was polio, a crippling disease that had no cure.
The doctor told Blanche that Wilma would never be able to walk, but Blanche would not just give up. She had heard that Wilma could receive treatment at Meharry Hospital, the black medical college of Fisk University in Nashville. Blanche took her there twice a week for two years, even though it was a 90-mile round trip. The result was that Wilma was able to walk with a metal leg brace. Blanche was taught how to do physical therapy with Wilma at home. The entire family pitched in, and by the time Wilma was 12 years old, she could walk normally and without any aid. Shortly after that, Wilma decided to become an athlete.
Wilma began to play basketball in junior high, and then in high school. While attending Burt High School, she became a basketball star, setting state records and leading her team to the state championships. During the state basketball tournament, Wilma was spotted by Ed Temple, the Tigerbells women's track team coach at Tennessee State University. Temple invited Wilma to Tennessee State for a summer sports camp, because her high school did not have a track team.
Wilma Rudolph competed in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, where she won the bronze metal in the 4 by 4 relay, at the age of 16. After graduating from high school, she was given a full scholarship to Tennessee State. She took time off from her education to pursue her athletic career, but would eventually return and graduate with a bachelor’s degree in education in 1963.
Rudolph appeared at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and went on to win three Olympic titles: the 100-meter, 200-meter and 4-by-100-meter relay. She was the first American woman to win three gold medals. In addition, Rudolph received the James E. Sullivan Award as the top U.S. amateur athlete in 1961.
Rudolph married her high school sweetheart, Robert Eldridge, in 1963. The couple had four children. They would later divorce.
Rudolph posted many accomplishments, one of which was more special to her than the others. She had insisted that her homecoming parade in Clarksville not be a segregated event anymore. Her victory parade was the first racially integrated event in her small town. Later that night, a banquet was held in her honor; it was the first time in the town’s history that blacks and whites ever gathered.
When Rudolph retired from track, she returned to Clarksville. She taught at Cobb Elementary and was the track coach for her old high school. She later moved to Maine and then Indiana to take on coaching roles. She also worked in broadcasting as a sports commentator.
In 1967, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey invited Rudolph to take place in “Operation Champ," an athletic outreach program for children in the inner cities of 16 major urban areas. She later founded a nonprofit organization, The Wilma Rudolph Foundation, to continue helping underprivileged children. The foundation provided sports coaching free of charge, and academic assistance as well.
Rudolph wrote her autobiography entitled Wilma in 1977. It was later made into a movie for television, and Rudolph was a consultant in its production.
Wilma Rudolph died of brain cancer in her home in Brentwood, Tennessee, on November 12, 1994, at the age of 54.
---- Selected Quotes ----
Quotes by Wilma Rudolph.
Regarding Americans in the Olympics My doctor told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.