Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994)

Wilma Rudolph with Her Olympic Gold Medals
Wilma Rudolph with her Olympic gold medals
Image courtesy U.S. Library of Congress, Fair use

Wilma Rudolph was born on June 23, 1940, in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, one of the eight children of Ed and Blanche Rudolph.  At birth, she weighed only four-and-a-half pounds and had numerous health issues as a child. She suffered from double pneumonia twice and scarlet fever once before she was four years old.  She had polio and suffered paralysis in her left leg. For two years, her mother brought her to Meharry Medical College in Nashville for weekly treatment.  Her family also massaged her leg at least four times daily.  From ages five to nine, she wore a metal brace on her leg.  During that time, she noticed the trips were always made on segregated buses that required African Americans sit in the back.

Rudolph entered Cobb Elementary School in Clarksville, Tennessee in 1947, and it was there that she discovered her passion for sports.  In eighth grade, she joined the track team, even though basketball was her first love, and competed in five different events in high school.  By the age of 16, she was a bronze medalist in the 1956 Olympics.  In September of 1958, she entered Tennessee State University majoring in elementary education and psychology.

Wilma Rudolph entered the 1960 Olympics and became the first American woman to win three gold medals: the 100 meter dash, 200 meter dash and the 4 x 100 meter relay.  She also set world records for all three events.  On May 27, 1963, she graduated from Tennessee State University and was offered a job as an elementary teacher and girl’s track coach at her old school, Cobb Elementary School.

Wilma Rudolph was named United Press Athlete of the Year in 1960 and the AP Woman Athlete of the Year in 1960 and 1961. She was inducted into the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1994.  She died in Clarksville in 1994 at the age of 54.