Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Glodean Rudolph (June 23, 1940 – November 12, 1994) was an American athlete, and in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games, despite running on a sprained ankle. [ [http://www.olympic.org/uk/utilities/multimedia/gallery/results_uk.asp?entid=764&LinkName=WILMA+RUDOLPH&MediaType=pic Rome, 1960, Games of the XVII Olympiad Photo Gallery of Wilma Rudolph] ] A track and field champion, she elevated women's track to a major presence in the United States.

The powerful sprinter emerged from the 1960 Rome Olympics as "The Tennessee Tornado," the fastest woman on earth. [Biracree, Tom. "Wilma Rudolph: Champion Athlete", Chelsea House Publishers, New York, (1988)] The Italians nicknamed her "La Gazzella Nera" (the Black Gazelle); to the French she was "La Perle Noire" (The Black Pearl). [Biracree, Tom. p. 82] [ [http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,826652,00.html Time Magazine, "The Fastest Female"] , Monday, September 19, 1960]


Early life

Wilma Rudolph was born on June 23,1940, in St. Bethlehem, a part of Clarksville, Tennessee. She was the 20th of 22 children of Ed and Blanche Rudolph. At the age of 5, it was discovered that she had polio. In 1947, her mother took her to Nashville's Meharry Medical College, a hospital for blacks 50 miles from their home, twice a week. Because of the expense and difficulty of obtaining professional medical care, Wilma's mother usually treated her ailing child at home. Rudolph remembered that during her youth, "My mother used to have all these home remedies she would make herself, and I lived on them". Many nights her mother, tired after a long day's work, would sit on Wilma's bed and massage her daughter's leg well into the evening hours. Blanche Rudolph kept telling her polio-stricken daughter she would one day walk without braces. [Biracree, Tom. p. 32]

Athletic highlights

In 1952, 12-year old Wilma Rudolph finally achieved her dream of shedding her handicap and becoming like other children. Wilma's older sister was on a basketball team, and Wilma vowed to follow in her footsteps. While in high school Wilma was on the basketball team, when she was spotted by Tennessee State track and field coach Edward S. Temple. Being discovered by Temple was a major break for a young athlete. The day he saw the tenth grader for the first time, he knew he had found a natural athlete. Wilma had already gained some track experience on Burt High School's track team two years before, mostly as a way to keep busy between basketball seasons. [Biracree, Tom. p. 47]

While attending Burt High School, Rudolph became a basketball star, setting state records for scoring and leading her team to the state championship. By the time she was 16, she earned a berth on the U.S. Olympic track and field team and came home from the 1956 Melbourne Games with an Olympic bronze medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay.

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome she won three Olympic titles; the 100 m, 200 m and the 4 x 100 m relay. The temperature climbed toward 100 degrees, 80,000 spectators jammed the "Stadio Olimpico". Rudolph ran the 100-meter dash in an impressive 11 seconds flat. However the time was not credited as a world record because it was wind-aided. She also won the 200-meter dash in 23.2 seconds, a new Olympic record. After these twin triumphs, she was being hailed throughout the world as "the fastest woman in history." Finally, on September 11, 1960, she combined with Tennessee State teammates Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams and Barbara Jones to win the 400-meter relay in 44.5 seconds, setting a world record. Rudolph had a special, personal reason to hope for victory--to pay tribute to Jesse Owens, the celebrated American athlete who had been her inspiration, also the star of the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Berlin, Germany. [Biracree, Tom. p. 16]

Rudolph retired from track competition in 1962 after winning two races at a U.S.-Soviet meet.

Awards and honours

Rudolph was United Press Athlete of the Year 1960 and Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year 1960. In 1961, the year her father died, Rudolph won the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States, and visited President John F. Kennedy. [cite web | url=http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/rudo-wil.htm | title=Wilma Rudolph biography | publisher=Women in History | accessdate=2007-06-11]

She was voted into the National Black Sports and Entertainment Hall of Fame in 1973 [ [http://www.harlemdiscover.com/halloffame/ National Black Sports and Entertainment Hall of Fame] ] and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974. [ [http://www.usatf.org/HallOfFame/TF/showBio.asp?HOFIDs=141 National Track and Field Hall of Fame] ]

She was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983, honored with the National Sports Award in 1993, and inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1994. [ [http://www.greatwomen.org/women.php?action=viewone&id=131 Women's Hall of Fame] ]

Career and family

In 1963, Rudolph was granted a full scholarship to Tennessee State University where she ultimately received her bachelor's degree in elementary education. After her athletic career, Rudolph worked as a teacher at Cobb Elementary School, coaching track at Burt High School, and as a sports commentator on national television.

Wilma married her high school sweetheart Robert Eldridge in 1963, and had four children: Yolanda (b. 1958), Djuanna (b. 1964), Robert Jr. (b. 1965) and Xurry (b. 1971). Wilma and Eldridge later divorced.

Enduring fame

In 1977, Rudolph published her autobiography, "Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph". That same year, NBC made a movie about her life from the book, with Rudolph as a consultant. The actor Denzel Washington, then 22 years old, portrayed Wilma's boyfriend, and he later married Pauletta Pearson whom he met on the set. [ [http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0076923/ NBC "Wilma"] ]

On December 2, 1980, Tennessee State University named its indoor track for Wilma Rudolph.

In 1981 she established the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to assisting young athletes by teaching them that they can succeed even in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Based in Indianapolis, Indiana, the organization, which had over 1,000 participants by the mid-1980s, provided free coaching in their chosen sports. She was awarded the Vitalis Cup for Sports Excellence in 1983.

Rudolph had the honor of lighting the flame at the 1987 Pan American Games in Indianapolis, Indiana and she received the Jackie Robinson Image Award of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1989.

Wilma Rudolph was one of 75 women chosen for the book "I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America" (1989), by Pulitzer Prize winning photographer Brian Lanker. Within this book Rudolph joined such company as Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Oprah Winfrey, Lena Horne, and Sarah Vaughan. [Lanker, Brian. "I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America", Stewart, Tabori and Chang, (1989), page 140-141 - ISBN 1556709234]


In July 1994, shortly after her mother’s death, Wilma Rudolph was diagnosed with brain and throat cancer. On November 12, 1994, at age 54, she died of cancer in her home in Brentwood, Tennessee. At the time of her death, she had four children, eight grandchildren, and over 100 nieces and nephews. [Smith, Maureen Margaret. "Wilma Rudolph: A Biography", Greenwood Press, (2006)] Thousands of mourners filled Tennessee State University's Kean Hall on November 17, 1994, for the memorial service in her honor. Others attended the funeral at Clarksville's First Baptist Church. Across Tennessee, the state flag flew at half-staff.

Nine months after Wilma's death, Tennessee State University, on August 11, 1995, dedicated its new six-story dormitory the "Wilma G. Rudolph Residence Center." A black marble marker was placed on her grave in Clarksville's Foster Memorial Garden Cemetery by the Wilma Rudolph Memorial Commission on November 21, 1995.


In 1994, Wilma Rudolph Boulevard is the name given to the portion of U.S. Route 79 in Clarksville, Tennessee.

The Women's Sports Foundation Wilma Rudolph Courage Award is presented to a female athlete who exhibits extraordinary courage in her athletic performance, demonstrates the ability to overcome adversity, makes significant contributions to sports and serves as an inspiration and role model to those who face challenges, overcomes them and strives for success at all levels. This award was first given in 1996 to Jackie Joyner-Kersee. [ [http://www.womensportsfoundation.org/cgi-bin/iowa/about/awards/results.html?record=14 Wilma Rudolph Courage Award] ]

A life-size statue of Rudolph, hand-crafted from bronze, stands at the southern end of the Cumberland RiverWalk at the base of the Pedestrian Overpass, College Street and Riverside Drive, in Clarksville. [ [http://www.clarksville.tn.us/info-html/what_to_see.html Wilma Rudolph Statue] ]

In 2000 Sports Illustrated magazine ranked Rudolph as number one in its listing of the top fifty greatest sports figures in twentieth-century Tennessee. [ [http://tennesseeencyclopedia.net/imagegallery.php?EntryID=R061 Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994) and the TSU Tigerbelles] ]

In 2004, the United States Postal Service issued a 23 cent postage stamp in recognition of her accomplishments.



*Biracee, Tom. "Wilma Rudolph", Holloway House Publishing Company; (June 1990) - ISBN 0870675656
*Braun, Eric. "Wilma Rudolph", Capstone Press, (2005) - ISBN 0736842349
*Coffey, Wayne R. "Wilma Rudolph", Blackbirch Press, (1993) - ISBN 1567110045
*Conrad, David. "Stick to It!: The Story of Wilma Rudolph", Compass Point Books (August 2002) - ISBN 0756503841
*Harper, Jo. "Wilma Rudolph: Olympic Runner" (Childhood of Famous Americans), Aladdin (January 6, 2004) - ISBN 0606297391
*Krull, Kathleen. "Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World's Fastest Woman", Harcourt *Children's Books; Library Binding edition (April 1, 1996) - ISBN 0152012672
*Maraniss, David. "Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World", Simon & Schuster, (2008) - ISBN 1416534083
*Ruth, Amy. "Wilma Rudolph, Lerner Publications" (February 2000) - ISBN 082254976X
*Schraff, Anne E. "Wilma Rudolph: The Greatest Woman Sprinter in History", Enslow Publishers, (2004) - ISBN 0766022919
*Sherrow, Victoria. "Wilma Rudolph (On My Own Biographies)," Carolrhoda Books (April 2000) - ISBN 1575052466
*Smith, Maureen Margaret. "Wilma Rudolph: A Biography", Greenwood Press, (2006) - ISBN 0313333076
*Streissguth, Tom. "Wilma Rudolph", Turnaround Publisher, (2007) - ISBN 0822566931

External links

* [http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/rudo-wil.htm Biography from "Women in History"]
* [http://www.whitehouse.gov/kids/dreamteam/wilmarudolph.html Whitehouse Kids, Wilma Rudolph]
* [http://myhero.com/myhero/hero.asp?hero=wilmaRudolph Sports Heros, Wilma Rudolph]
* [http://www.depauw.edu/news/index.asp?id=21712 Wilma Rudolph Joins DePauw Staff]
* [http://en.beijing2008.cn/education/stories/n214077706.shtml Wilma Rudolph] 's story on the website of the 2008 Summer Olympics

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