Born prematurely June 23, 1940 into a large family of 22 children, Wilma Glodean Rudolph was raised in a low socio-economic class by hard working parents who worked numerous low paying jobs to support the family. Because they were poor and the hospital was “for White’s only”, Wilma did not get the medical care she needed. Consequently, she suffered from measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox, and double pneumonia with little to no medical care. When her family noticed her left leg and foot were starting to lose strength and become deformed, they did take her to the only doctor for Blacks in town. Her diagnosis? Polio. The doctor informed the family Wilma would be crippled and unable to walk.
Wilma’s mother found a Black medical college in Nashville, 50 miles away and traveled there twice weekly for two years until Wilma was able to walk with the aid of a leg brace, crutches, and corrective shoes--and the physical therapy techniques were learned so the family come do them at home. By age 12, she was able to walk without any of the aids.
She was home schooled until age seven. Once in a segregrated junior high, following the footsteps of a sister, Wilma joined the basketball team. She was finally put in a game her sophomore year of high school and soon set state records, leading her team to a state championship. It was during the championship games that the Tennessee State University track team scout spotted her and invited her to a summer sports camp.
After high school, she attended Tennessee State on a full scholarship where she became a track star and participated in the 1956 Olympic Games at age 16. There she won a bronze medal in relay. At the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash and 400-meter relay team events. .
Wilma became one of the most celebrated female athletes of all time. This recognition resulted in gender barriers to be broken in previously all-male track and field events. She took a year’s sabbatical to make appearances and compete in International track events (including events she was asked to participate in by the U.S. State Department and by Dr. Billy Graham). After returning from her Olympic victory and worldwide recognition, she was most proud that her Clarksville victory homecoming parade was “open to all” at her request.
After retiring from track competition, with her 1963 Bachelor’s degree in Education in hand, she taught at her old elementary school and was track coach at her old high school. She was active in civil rights protests in her hometown until segregation laws changed. Later she coached in Maine, then Indiana and continued to speak at schools and universities. Wilma also became a sports commentator on national television and co-hosted a network radio show.
At the invitation of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Wilma participated in "Operation Champ," an athletic outreach program started in 1967 for underprivileged youth in the ghettoes of 16 major cities. Other accomplishments included establishing her own non-profit organization, The Wilma Rudolph Foundation, to continue the outreach program by providing free coaching in a variety of sports as well as academic assistance and support.
Her 1977 autobiography, "Wilma," was later adapted into a television movie she worked on as a consultant.
On November 12, 1994, at the age of 54, Wilma died in Nashville due to a rapidly growing cancer of the brain. The president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said of Wilma, "All of us recognize that this is obviously a tremendous loss. Wilma was still very much involved with a number of Olympic programs
In 1997, June 23 was proclaimed as “Wilma Rudolph Day” in Tennessee.
- United Press Athlete of the Year 1960
- Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year 1960
- James E. Sullivan Award for Good Sportsmanship 1961 *
- The Babe Zaharias Award 1962
- European Sportswriters' Sportsman of the Year *
- Christopher Columbus Award for Most Outstanding International Sports Personality 1960*
- The Penn Relays 1961 *
- New York Athletic Club Track Meet *
- The Millrose Games *
- Black Sports Hall of Fame 1980
- U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame 1983
- Vitalis Cup for Sports Excellence 1983
- Women's Sports Foundation Award 1984
* indicates first woman to receive the award/invitation
“Wilma once stated that she would be very disappointed if she were remembered only as a runner. Certainly she is remembered for more -- for her human greatness, her courage and indomitable spirit. It was her desire to use her personal triumphs to open doors and smooth paths for others, who like herself, started out with the odds against them.”
Compiled from Internet sources, primarily, http://www.knowsouthernhistory.net/Biographies/Wilma_Rudolph and http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/rudolph.htm.