Wilma Rudolph was born on June 23, 1940 in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, to parents Ed and Blanche Rudolph. Wilma was born the 20th of 22 children, born premature only weighing 4.5 pounds (2.0 kg). At the age 4 Wilma contracted Infantile Paralysis in her left leg caused by the polio virus leaving her with only use of her right leg. Wilma had to wear a leg brace until she was nine, which caused her leg to become twisted. Wilma parents had to take of work and traveled regularly to Nashville, Tennessee to Meharry Hospital, now called Nashville General Hospital for treatments for Wilma twisted leg. Doctors told Wilma and her parents she would never walk again, but Wilma mother told her she would and Wilma said “she believed her mother”. By the age twelve Wilma had survived polio and scarlet fever.
In 1947 Wilma attended Cobb Elementary School in Clarksville Tennessee, it was there that she discovered her passion for sports. In the eighth grade she joined the track team.
In 1953 Wilma attended Burt High School, where she decided to follow one of her sisters footsteps and began playing basketball. One day while playing basketball for her High School team Wilma was spotted by Tennessee State track and field coach Ed Temple. The day Ed saw the tenth grader for the first time he knew Wilma was a natural gifted runner.
Wilma joined Ed Temple’s summer program at Tennessee State and trained regularly.
While still in High School, Wilma was nicknamed “Skeeter” for her famous speed and by the age 16 Wilma qualified for the 1956 Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. The youngest member of the United States team. Wilma won a bronze medal in the sprint relay.
Wilma graduated from High School and enrolled at Tennessee State University, where she studied education. While at the University she trained had for the next Olympics.
In 1957 Wilma won a gold medal in the 4 × 100 m relay at Pan American Games with her running mates Isabelle Daniels, Barbara Jones, and Lucinda Williams and she won an individual silver in the 100 m. The same year she won
Association of American Universities (AAU) 100 m title and defended it for four consecutive years. During her career, she also won three AAU indoor titles.
The 1960 Olympics Games held in Rome, Italy, were a golden time for Rudolph. After setting a world record of 11.3 seconds in the 100-meter dash in the semifinals, she won the 100 in the final round with a time of 11.0. Similarly, she broke the Olympic record in the 200-meter dash (23.2 seconds) in the semifinals before winning the 200 (24 seconds) in the final. She was also part of the U.S. team that beat the world record in the 4-by-100-meter relay (44.4 seconds) in the Olympic semifinals before winning the relay in the final in 44.5 seconds. Most notably, Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympic Games.
The first-class sprinter instantly became one of the most popular athletes of the Rome Games as well as an international superstar, lauded around the world for her groundbreaking achievements. After these wins, Wilma was being hailed throughout the world as “the fastest woman in history”. The powerful sprinter emerged from the 1960 Olympics as “The Tornado, the fastest woman on earth”. The Italians nicknamed Wilma La Gazzella Nera (“The Black Gazelle”), to the French she was La Perle Noire (“The Black Pearl”).
In 1962 at the age 22 Wilma retired from track competition after winning two races at a United States Soviet meet at Stanford University. In 1963, Wilma was granted a full scholarship to Tennessee State University where she received her bachelor’s degree in Elementary. After her athletic career, Wilma worked at her childhood Elementary school as a teacher and she was the coach of the girl’s track team.
Awards and Honors
- Wilma Rudolph was United Press Athlete of the Year 1960 and Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year for 1960 and 1961. Also in 1961, the year of her father’s death, Wilma won the James E. Sullivan Award, an award for the top amateur athlete in the United States, and visited President John F. Kennedy.
- She was voted into the National Black Sports and Entertainment Hall of Fame in 1973 and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974.
- She was inducted into the United States 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.
- In 1994, the portion of U.S. Route 79 in Clarksville, Tennessee between the Interstate 24 exit 4 in Clarksville to the Red River (Lynnwood-Tarpley) bridge near the Kraft Street intersection was renamed to honor Wilma Rudolph.
In 1994 Wilma Rudolph was diagnosed with a brain tumor and Cancer. On November 12, 1994, at age 54, she died of cancer in her home in Nashville. Wilma also had throat cancer. She was interred at Edgefield Missionary Baptist Church in Clarksville, Tennessee. At the time of her death, she had four children, eight grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews. 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-mast.
Nine months after Rudolph’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 1997, Governor Donald Kenneth Sundquist proclaimed that June 23 be known as “Wilma Rudolph Day” in Tennessee.
- In 1994, Wilma Rudolph Boulevard was the name given to the portion of U.S. Route 76 in Clarksville, Tennessee.
- The Woman’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 Jacqueline “Jackie” Joyner-Kersee.
- A life-size bronze statue of Rudolph stands at the southern end of the Cumberland River Walk at the base of the Pedestrian Overpass, College Street and Riverside Drive, in Clarksville.
- In 2000 Sport Illustrated magazine ranked Rudolph as number one on its listing of the top fifty greatest sports figures in twentieth-century Tennessee. A year before, she was ranked as 41st greatest athletes of the 20th century by ESPN.
- Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Berlin in 1994, Berlin American High School (BAHS) was turned over to the people of Berlin and became the “Gesamtschule Am Hegewinkel”. The school was renamed the “Wilma Rudolph Oberschule” in her honor in the summer 2000.
- On July 14, 2004, the United States Postal Service issued a 23-cent Distinguished American series postage stamp in recognition of her accomplishments.
- In 1977 a made-for-TV docudrama titled Wilma (also known as The Story of Wilma Rudolph) was produced by Bud Greenspan; it starred Shirley Jo Finney, Cicely Tyson, Jason Bernard and Denzel Washington in one of his first roles.
- In 2015, UK film Production Company Pixel Revolution Films was commissioned by Positive Edge Education Ltd to produce three short inspiration dramas to be screened in schools, Wilma Rudolph’s story was chosen to be one of the films. Written and directed by Ian and Dominic Higgins, the film was titled Unlimited.