Wilma Rudolph life and biography

Wilma Rudolph picture, image, poster

Wilma Rudolph biography

Date of birth : 1940-06-23
Date of death : 1994-11-12
Birthplace : Bethlehem, Tennessee, United States
Nationality : American
Category : Sports
Last modified : 2010-06-22
Credited as : Athlete track and field, Olympic athlete,

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Wilma Rudolph (also known as: Wilma Glodean Rudolph,/b>) born June 23, 1940 in Bethlehem, Tennessee, United States - died November 12, 1994 in Nashville, Tennessee, United States is an African-American athlete.

Wilma Rudolph made Olympic history in 1960 when she became the first American woman ever to win three gold medals in track and field events. Her achievement would have been remarkable for any athlete, but it was even more impressive because Rudolph had spent her childhood in leg braces and special shoes; doctors had told her family that she would never walk normally.

Early Obstacles

Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born June 23, 1940, in Bethlehem, Tennessee, to a poor and very large family. Her father, Ed Rudolph, had eleven children by an earlier marriage, and had eight more with Wilma's mother, Blanche Rudolph. Wilma was the fifth of this second set of children. When she was born, she weighed only four and a half pounds.

During Rudolph's infancy, the family moved to a house on Kellogg Street in Clarksville, Tennessee, where her father worked as a railroad porter and did odd jobs, and her mother worked six days a week as a maid in the homes of wealthy white families in Clarksville.

When Rudolph was four years old, she contracted polio, for which there was no immunization or curative treatment. The illness weakened her, and she also suffered through double pneumonia and scarlet fever, which almost killed her. Although she survived, her left leg remained paralyzed from the polio. Her parents took her to a specialist at Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee, who told them that in order for Rudolph's leg to regain strength, they would have to do therapeutic massage. For the next two years, Wilma and her mother visited Meharry each week for heat and water therapy. Every other day of the week, Rudolph's mother, with three of her older siblings, took turns massaging the crippled limb at least four times a day.

During her weekly trips to Nashville, Rudolph saw the deep segregation of races that existed at that time in the South. Traveling on a Greyhound bus, she noted that the African-American passengers had to sit in the back, and that there were separate ticket windows, waiting areas, and restrooms for African Americans. In addition, if white passengers did not have seats, African Americans were expected to give up their seats and stand in the aisle for the duration of the trip.

When Rudolph was five years old, her doctors fitted her with a steel brace on her left leg. She was supposed to wear the brace from the moment she got up until she went to bed at night. She hated the brace, because it was a visible sign that she had a physical problem, and she wanted to be like everyone else. When her parents were not around, Rudolph often took off the brace and tried to walk without a limp. In her autobiography, Wilma, she wrote that even as a child she was aware that, "From that day on [when she walked normally], people were going to start separating me from that brace, start thinking about me differently, start saying that Wilma is a healthy kid, just like the rest of them." This knowledge, and the desire to walk like everyone else, became a driving force in her life.

In 1947, at the age of seven, Rudolph entered Cobb Elementary School in Clarksville. Her poor health had forced her to miss kindergarten and first grade, so she entered at the second-grade level. The school, which enrolled only African-American students, included all grades from elementary through high school, and its facilities, curriculum, and materials were inferior to those of local white schools. However, Rudolph loved school, and found that it changed her life. From being a sickly, often-teased child, she became accepted by other children. "I needed to belong, and I finally did," she wrote in Wilma.

At Cobb Elementary, the students were taught some African-American history, with an emphasis on African American achievements, but did not discuss prejudice or oppression. Rudolph wrote, "The object of it was to give us black kids somebody to be proud of, not to tell us we were still oppressed."

Interestingly, Rudolph had red, sandy hair and light skin, and in her autobiography, she wrote that next to some of her darker-skinned brothers and sisters, she "felt like an albino." Her awareness of her appearance, coupled with her growing awareness in the disparities in American culture's treatment of African Americans and whites, made her believe as a child that "all white people were mean and evil." As she grew up, her anger about society's treatment of African Americans would be tempered by her Christian religious beliefs, which taught tolerance and forgiveness.

Rudolph's teacher, Mrs. Allison, was a kind, generous woman who boosted Rudolph's self-esteem and confidence. A later teacher, Mrs. Hoskins, who taught fourth grade, was a martinet who once spanked Rudolph and who was known, Rudolph wrote, as the "meanest, toughest teacher in the whole school." However, Rudolph came to respect her because she "had no pets in class, no favorites, and treated everybody equally." Hoskins taught Rudolph to go out and work to achieve her goals, rather than simply daydreaming about them. This attitude would later fuel Rudolph as she worked on her athletic training.

Not Just Walking, But Running

When Rudolph was eleven, her family's persistence with her physical therapy, her long training without the brace, and her determination paid off: she took off the brace and was able to walk normally without it. She progressed rapidly from then on, and not only walked, but outran her peers. According to a writer in Great Women in Sports, Rudolph told a Chicago Tribune writer, "By the time I was twelve, I was challenging every boy in our neighborhood at running, jumping, everything."

In seventh grade, Rudolph entered Burt High School, a new school for African American children. Everything in their community revolved around the school, and Rudolph begged her high school coach to play basketball. She was allowed to play only because the coach wanted her older sister to play. The following year, Rudolph's basketball coach, Clinton Gray, decided to invite girls who were on the basketball team to join the track team. Rudolph joined, although she continued to play basketball until the ninth grade. In her first season, at the age of thirteen, she ran five different events--the 50-meter, 75-meter, 100-meter, 200-meter, and the 4 x 100 relay. In twenty different races, she won every event.

In her sophomore year on the basketball team, Rudolph scored 803 points in 25 games, then a state record in girls' basketball, and her team made it to competition in the Middle East Tennessee Conference championship. Although they lost in the second game of the playoffs, the championship was a pivotal event in Rudolph's life because one of the referees was also a track coach at Tennessee State University. This coach, Ed Temple, noticed Rudolph's running ability and told her that she had the talent to become a great runner. He encouraged her to attend his university when she finished high school.

In that same year, Rudolph attended her first big track meet, held at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Girls from all over the South traveled there to compete, and in this wider field of competition, Rudolph did not win a single race. The losses were devastating to her, but in the long run, made her realize that her innate talent was not enough: she also had to work to improve her training and ability. She became determined to go to the meet again the following year and beat everyone there.

The next summer, Rudolph attended a track camp run by Ed Temple, where the girls ran long cross-country distances every day in order to build up their endurance. At the end of the summer, Temple's team went to the National Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) meet in Philadelphia. Rudolph entered nine races and won all of them. At the meet, she met and was photographed with baseball greats Jackie Robinson and Don Newcomb. Rudolph looked up to Robinson as her first African-American hero.

Wins Bronze at Melbourne Olympics

Although Rudolph had never even heard of the Olympics until high school, she attended the Olympic trials in Seattle and qualified for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia at the age of sixteen, as a high school junior. The youngest member of the American team, she was excited to go on her first airplane flight. At Melbourne, she was eliminated from the 200-meter event and did not make the final race, but she ran the third leg of the 4 x 100-meter relay and won a bronze medal.

According to Great Women in Sports, she told a reporter for 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 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."

During her senior year of high school, Rudolph underwent a routine physical and found out that she was pregnant. Her parents and coach supported her, and she finished high school and kept up with her training as much as she could. A month after graduating, she gave birth to a daughter, Yolanda. Her parents, who wanted her to attend college, took care of the baby until she was able to do so.

In 1958, Rudolph entered college at Tennessee State University, majoring in elementary school education and psychology. Surprisingly, she did not have an athletic scholarship, although she did work two hours a day, five days a week, as part of the school's work assistance program. Another little-known facet of her college career was that when she was not on the track, she never hurried anywhere, and was often late for class.

Wins Gold in 1960 Olympics

In 1960, Rudolph went to Corpus Christi, Texas, for the National AAU meet. The winners of the meet were invited to the Olympic Trials, held two weeks later at Texas Christian University. At the trials, she set a world record in the 200 meter race that would stand for the next eight years, and qualified for the Olympic team in the 100 meter, 200 meter, and 4 x 100 relay.

At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, she went for the gold, and won it--three times, becoming the first American woman ever to accomplish this feat. In the 100-meter dash and the 200-meter dash, she finished at least three yards in front of her closest competitor. In the 100-meter dash, she tied the world record, and she set a new Olympic record in the 200. As a member of the 4 x 100-meter relay team, she brought the team from behind to first place. A reporter for Time magazine wrote, "Running for gold medal glory, Miss Rudolph regularly got away to good starts with her arms pumping in classic style, then smoothly shifted gears to a flowing stride that made the rest of the pack seem to be churning on a treadmill." Her wins were even more amazing because on the day before the 100-meter semifinal event, she stepped in a hole and twisted her ankle. It swelled and became painful, but Rudolph ran anyway, and won all of her events.

Personally, Rudolph was thrilled by her gold medals because she had repeated the achievement of another of her heroes, famed African American athlete Jesse Owens, who won three gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Germany, in front of notoriously racist Nazi officials.

After the Olympics, Temple took Rudolph and the other members of the team to the British Empire Games in London. Rudolph won every event she ran in. The team continued to travel throughout Europe, and Rudolph kept winning.

Her achievements brought her instant fame, and crowds gathered wherever she ran. President John F. Kennedy invited her to the White House, she received ticker tape parades, and she was invited to dinners, awards, and television appearances. Her homecoming parade in Clarksville was attended by over 40,000 people, and was the first racially integrated event in the history of the town--at her insistence, since she refused to participate in the segregated event that the white town officials originally proposed. In 1961, she was given the Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States, and won the Associated Press's Female Athlete of the Year Award. She also became the first woman to be invited to compete in some of track's most prestigious events, including the New York Athletic Club Meet, the Millrose Games, the Los Angeles Times Games, the Penn Relays, and the Drake Relays. Rudolph also traveled with evangelist Billy Graham on a trip to French West Africa and with the Baptist Christian Athletes on a trip to Japan.

"You Can't Go Back to Living the Way You Did Before"

Despite all the awards and praise, Rudolph received little or no money for her success, and though she had to work for a living, she found it hard to fit back into her old life. According to Great Women in Sports, she told a reporter for 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."

Although Rudolph could have competed in the 1964 Olympics, she decided not to. She was not sure she could win gold medals again, and didn't want to look like a fading athlete in the eyes of the public. She retired from competition in 1963, the same year she graduated from Tennessee State University, and became a second-grade teacher and girls' track coach at her childhood school, Cobb Elementary in Clarksville, where she was paid $200 a month. She also married her high school sweetheart, Robert Eldridge, but was later divorced from him and raised her four children--two daughters, Yolanda and Djuana, and two sons, Robert, Jr. and Xurry--on her own. She lived in Evansville, Indiana, where she was a coach at DePauw University, and later moved to Boston, where she worked for the Job Corps program in Poland Springs, Maine.

In 1967, Rudolph was invited by Vice President Hubert Humphrey to work on a program called "Operation Champion." This program took well-known athletes into poor inner-city areas, where they trained young people in sports. When this project was complete, the Job Corps transferred Rudolph to St. Louis; after that, she went to Detroit, where she taught at Palham Junior High School. In 1977 she spent time in Clarksville, Tennessee, before going back to Detroit.

Rudolph's autobiography, Wilma, was published in 1977. In that same year, the NBC network produced a television film titled Wilma, starring Cicely Tyson as Rudolph. In 1991, Rudolph served as ambassador to the European celebration that marked the fall of the Berlin Wall. Rudolph also founded the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting amateur athletics.

Rudolph has been inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the Helms Hall of Fame, the Women's Sports Foundation Hall of Fame, and the Black Athletes Hall of Fame. A street in Clarksville, Tennessee, is named in her honor. In 1987, she was the first woman to receive the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Silver Anniversary Award. In 1993, she was honored as one of "The Great Ones" at the first National Sports Awards.

A year later, on November 12, 1994, Rudolph died of brain cancer in Nashville, Tennessee. She was buried with the Olympic flag draped over her casket.

Rudolph's achievements as an athlete were remarkable for many reasons. She was a woman and an African American in a time when fewer opportunities existed for both groups, and she also overcame serious childhood illness and disability to not only walk normally, but win gold medals in national and Olympic competition. In the Kansas City Star, Claude Lewis summed up Rudolph as "an athletic queen who mesmerized the international sporting world through personal achievement, physical heroics, and a stunning elegance that dwarfed her impoverished beginnings." A writer in Contemporary Heroes and Heroines quoted Rudolph's hero, Jesse Owens, who wrote, "Wilma Rudolph's courage and her triumph over her physical handicaps are among the most inspiring jewels in the crown of Olympic sports. . . . She was speed and motion incarnate, the most beautiful image ever seen on the track."


1956, Bronze medal, 4 X 100-meter relay, Olympic Games, Melbourne, Australia; 1960, World record in the 200-meter race at the Olympic Trials at Texas Christian University; 1960, Gold medals, 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, and 4 x 100-meter relay, Olympic Games, Rome, Italy; first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals; 1961, Received Sullivan Award and Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year Award; 1962, Received Babe Didrikson Zaharias Award; 1973, Inducted into Black Athletes Hall of Fame; 1974, Inducted into National Track and Field Hall of Fame; 1980, Inducted into Women's Sports Foundation Hall of Fame; 1983, Inducted into U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame; 1987, Received National Collegiate Athletic Association's Silver Anniversary Award; 1993, Honored as one of the National Sports Awards "Great Ones".


* 1940 Born in Bethlehem, Tennessee
* 1944 Contracts polio, which leaves her left leg weakened
* 1945 Fitted with a steel brace on her left leg
* 1947 Enters Cobb Elementary School in Clarksville, Tennessee
* 1951 After years of secretly practicing walking without it, Rudolph is able to walk without the brace
* 1953 Joins the track and field team and basketball teams at Burt High School
* 1954 Meets coach Ed Temple when her team plays in the East Tennessee Conference Championship
* 1956 Wins bronze medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay at the Melbourne Olympics
* 1958 Enters Tennessee State University
* 1960 Sets a world record in the 200-meter race at the Olympic Trials
* 1960 Becomes first American woman to win three gold medals in the Olympics when she wins the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and the 4 x 100-meter relay at the Olympic Games in Rome
* 1963 Retires from competition at the peak of her career, and becomes a second-grade teacher at Cobb Elementary School
* 1967-93 Works with young people in the Job Corps; serves as a consultant to university track teams; is widely honored for her accomplishments
* 1977 Publishes her autobiography, titled Wilma
* 1994 Dies of brain cancer on November 12, in Nashville, Tennessee

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