Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994) became the first American woman runner to win three gold medals in the Olympic games.

Wilma Rudolph made history in the 1960 Summer Olympic games in Rome, Italy, when she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in the track and field competition. (At those same Olympic games, Rafer Johnson, winner of a silver medal at the 1956 Olympics and a gold medal at the 1959 Pan American Games for the decathlon, won a gold medal for the same event and was the first African American to carry the American flag during the opening ceremony.) Rudolph's brilliant accomplishments were all the more remarkable because she came from modest circumstances and endured a childhood of sickness and disability. Prior to her death on November 12, 1994, Rudolph was still busy coaching underprivileged children and encouraging minority interest in amateur athletics. "It's a good feeling to know that you have touched the lives of so many young people," the mother of four told the Chicago Tribune. "I tell them that the most important aspect is to be yourself and have confidence in yourself."

Rudolph's confidence may have flagged at times in her childhood, when it seemed she might spend a lifetime in leg braces or even a wheelchair. Through the efforts of her devoted family—and then her own steely determination to strengthen herself—she rose from disability to Olympic glory. Her victories in Rome in 1960 helped to set the stage for a life dedicated to the principles and practices that helped her to succeed. "Believe me, the reward is not so great without the struggle," she told the Chicago Tribune. "The triumph can't be had without the struggle. And I know what struggle is. I have spent a lifetime trying to share what it has meant to be a woman first in the world of sports so that other young women have a chance to reach their dreams."

Almost every circumstance was stacked against Rudolph from the day she was born on June 23, 1940. Her family was very large. Ed Rudolph had eleven children by a first marriage. His second marriage yielded eight more, of which Wilma was the fifth. At birth she weighed only four and one-half pounds. Her mother, Blanche, a domestic, feared for Wilma's survival from the outset. The family lived in tiny St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, a farming community about 45 miles southeast of Nashville.

Shortly after Wilma was born, the Rudolphs moved to nearby Clarksville, Tennessee, where they lived in town. Her father worked as a porter on railroad cars, and her mother cleaned house six days a week. Older siblings helped care for the sickly baby who had come into the world prematurely.

At the age of four, Wilma contracted polio. The disease weakened her and made her vulnerable to pneumonia and scarlet fever. She survived the illnesses, but she lost the use of her left leg. Specialists in Nashville recommended a routine of massage for the limb, and Mrs. Rudolph learned it and taught it to some of the older children. Thus, Wilma's legs were massaged a number of times each day, helping her to regain strength. Medical history aside, she was a normal child. "When I was about 5, I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to get my [leg] braces off," she told the Chicago Tribune."And you see, when you come from a large wonderful family, there's always a way to achieve your goals, especially when you don't want your parents knowing them. I would take off my braces, then station my brothers and sisters all through the house and they would tell me if my parents were coming and then I'd hurry and put the braces back on."

Once a week—on her day off—Blanche Rudolph would drive her daughter 45 miles to Nashville for physical therapy. The long drive provided Wilma with chances to daydream about her future, but the outlook was grim. "I would visualize myself in this gigantic white house on the hill and being married and having children," she said in the Chicago Tribune. "But as I began to understand life, those dreams vanished very quickly."

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Staged a Comeback from Physical Disability

After five years of treatment, Wilma one day stunned her doctors when she removed her leg braces and walked by herself. She had been practicing—with the help of those siblings—for quite some time. Soon she was able to walk even better with the help of a supportive shoe. This she wore until she was eleven. After that, she not only left braces and orthopedic shoes behind, she confounded every prediction that she would be a disabled adult. Soon she was joining her brothers and sisters in basketball games in the Rudolph backyard and running street races against other children her age. "By the time I was 12," she told the Chicago Tribune, "I was challenging every boy in our neighborhood at running, jumping, everything."

Rudolph desperately wanted to play high school basketball, but she simply could not convince the coach to put her on the team. When she finally worked up the nerve to ask him for a tryout, he agreed to coach her privately for ten minutes each morning. Still she was cut in her freshman year. She finally earned a position on the roster at Burt High School in Clarksville because the coach wanted her older sister to play. Her father agreed to allow the sibling onto the team only if Wilma could be on it too.

Rudolph soon blossomed into a fine basketball player. As a sophomore she scored 803 points in 25 games, a new state record for a player on a girls' basketball team. She also started running in track meets and found that her greatest strengths lay in the sprint. She was only fourteen when she attracted the attention of Ed Temple, the women's track coach at Tennessee State University. Temple told her she had the potential to become a great runner, and during the summer recesses from high school she trained with him and the students at Tennessee State.

The Olympic Games were a far-off dream to a young black woman in Tennessee. She was a teenager before she even learned what the Olympics were. Rudolph caught on fast, though. In four seasons of high school track meets, she never lost a race. At the tender age of sixteen, she qualified for the Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, and came home with a bronze medal. Rudolph told the Chicago Tribune: "I remember going back to my high school this particular day with the bronze medal and all the kids that I disliked so much or I thought I disliked … put up this big huge banner: 'Welcome Home Wilma.' And I forgave them right then and there…. They passed my bronze medal around so that everybody could touch, feel and see what an Olympic medal is like. When I got it back, there were handprints all over it. I took it and I started shining it up. I discovered that bronze doesn't shine. So, I decided I'm going to try this one more time. I'm going to go for the gold."

Rudolph entered Tennessee State University in the fall of 1957, with a major in elementary education. All of her spare time was consumed by running, however. The pace took its toll, and she found herself too ill to run through most of the 1958 season. She rebounded in 1959, only to pull a muscle at a crucial meet between the United States and the Soviet Union in Philadelphia. Ed Temple, who would prove to be a life-long friend, supervised her recovery and by 1960 Rudolph was ready to go to Rome.

Rudolph was not the first black woman to receive an Olympic gold medal: that distinction goes to Alice Coachman-Davis, who took first place in the high jump at the 1948 Olympic Games in London, England. A dozen years later at the 1960 Olympics, Rudolph won all three of her gold medals in very dramatic fashion. In both the 100-meter dash and the 200-meter dash, she finished at least three yards in front of her closest competitor. She tied the world record in the 100-meter and set a new Olympic record in the 200. Rudolph also brought her 400-meter relay team from behind to win the gold. The French called her "La Gazelle." Without question, Rudolph's achievements at the 1960 Olympic Games remain a stand-out performance in the history of Olympic competition.

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The Price of Fame

Wilma Rudolph became an instant celebrity in Europe and America. Crowds gathered wherever she was scheduled to run. She was given ticker tape parades, an official invitation to the White House by president John F. Kennedy, and a dizzying round of dinners, awards, and television appearances. Rudolph remembered in Ebony magazine that the royal treatment she received was rather shallow—she was treated like a star, but not given the money to live like one. Today, beautiful young women athletes can count on endorsements for commercial products and hefty fees for personal appearances. That was not so in Rudolph's era, especially for a black athlete. She told Ebony: "You become world famous and you sit with kings and queens, and then your first job is just a job. You can't go back to living the way you did before because you've been taken out of one setting and shown the other. That becomes a struggle and makes you struggle."

Rudolph made one decision that she stuck to firmly: she refused to participate in the 1964 Olympic games. She felt that she might not be able to duplicate her achievement of 1960, and she did not want to appear to be fading. She retired from amateur athletics in 1963, finished her college work, and became a school teacher and athletic coach. She also became a mother, raising four children on her own after divorcing two husbands.

Talent Didn't Go to Waste

For more than two decades, Wilma Rudolph sought to impart the lessons she learned about amateur athletics to other young men and women. She was the author of an autobiography, Wilma, that was published in 1977—and the subject of a television movie based on the book. She lectured in every part of America and even served in 1991 as an ambassador to the European celebration of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Rudolph helped to open and run inner city sports clinics and served as a consultant to university track teams. She also founded her own organization, the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, dedicated to promoting amateur athletics.

"I think the thing that made life good for me is that I never looked back," Rudolph told Ebony. "I've always been positive no matter what happened." Rudolph added that she has always believed in herself and her abilities, and that the phrase "I can't" never applied to her.

Rudolph was a member of the United States Olympic Hall of Fame and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. She traveled frequently and was well known for her motivational speeches to youngsters. "I love working with kids. It's the motherly instinct in me," she told Newsday. And in an interview with Ebony, Rudolph claimed that her moment of Olympic glory "sort of sent my way all the other positive things and feelings that I've had. That one accomplishment—what happened in 1960—nobody can take from me. It was something I worked for. It wasn't something somebody handed to me."

Asked what she felt was her greatest achievement, Rudolph looked past 1960 to all the work she had done since. "My thoughts about my life, my great moment, if I left the Earth today, would be knowing that I have tried to give something to young people," she commented in the Chicago Tribune. "Hopefully, for the first time, I'm beginning to see that young black women in America are making a large contribution in sports. The impression is that together we can make a first. And that makes me very happy."

On November 12, 1994, Wilma Rudolph died at her home in Brentwood, Tennessee of a malignant brain tumor. She is survived by two sons, two daughters, six sisters, and two brothers.

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Further Reading on Wilma Rudolph

Rust, Edna, and Art Rust Jr., Art Rust's Illustrated History of the Black Athlete, Doubleday, 1985.

Chicago Tribune, January 8, 1989.

Ebony, February 1984; January 1992.

Jet, February 2, 1987.

Newsday, October 14, 1990.

Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), August 18, 1991.

Time, September 19, 1960.

Upscale, October/November 1992.

USA Today, July 17, 1996.

Detroit Free Press, November 13, 1994.