Today we will visit with Wilma Rudolph, Olympic champion in Track and Field. I have two biographies posted because Wilma Rudolph accomplished so much in such a short time.
Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born on June 23, 1940 in Clarksville, Tennessee. Wilma was born into a large family — she was the 20th of 22 children! Her parents, Ed and Blanche Rudolph, were honest, hardworking people, but were very poor. Mr. Rudolph worked as a railroad porter and handyman. Mrs. Rudolph did cooking, laundry and housecleaning for wealthy white families.
In 1940 millions of Americans were poor — out of work and homeless because of the Great Depression. The Rudolphs managed to make ends meet by doing things like making the girls’ dresses out of flour sacks.
Wilma was born prematurely and weighed only 4.5 pounds. Again, because of racial segregation, she and her mother were not permitted to be cared for at the local hospital. It was for whites only. There was only one black doctor in Clarksville, and the Rudolph’s budget was tight, so Wilma’s mother spent the next several years nursing Wilma through one illness after another: measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox and double pneumonia. But, she had to be taken to the doctor when it was discovered that her left leg and foot were becoming weak and deformed. She was told she had polio, a crippling disease that had no cure. The doctor told Mrs. Rudolph that Wilma would never walk. But Mrs. Rudolph would not give up on Wilma. She found out that she could be treated at Meharry Hospital, the black medical college of Fisk University in Nashville. Even though it was 50 miles away, Wilma’s mother took her there twice a week for two years, until she was able to walk with the aid of a metal leg brace. Then the doctors taught Mrs. Rudolph how to do the physical therapy exercises at home. All of her brothers and sisters helped too, and they did everything to encourage her to be strong and work hard at getting well. Finally, by age 12, she could walk normally, without the crutches, brace, or corrective shoes. It was then that she decided to become an athlete.
At first, Wilma was tutored at home by her family because she was crippled. She first began school at the age of seven. In 1947, the schools of the Southern states were segregated — black students and white students had to attend separate schools.
In junior high, Wilma followed her older sister Yolanda’s example and joined the basketball team. The coach, Clinton Gray, didn’t put her in a single game for three years. Finally, in her sophomore year, she became the starting guard. She became a basketball star who set state records for scoring and led her team to a state championship. During the state basketball tournament, she was spotted by Ed Temple, the coach for the famous Tigerbells, the women’s track team at Tennessee State University. Because Burt High School didn’t have the funding for a track team, coach Temple invited Wilma to Tennessee State for a summer sports camp.
After graduating from high school, Wilma received a full scholarship to Tennessee State. She became a track star, going to her first Olympic Games in 1956 at the age of 16. She won a bronze medal in the 4×4 relay. On September 7th, 1960, in Rome, Wilma became the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in the Olympics. She won the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and ran the anchor on the 400-meter relay team.
This achievement led her to become one of the most celebrated female athletes of all time. In addition, her celebrity caused gender barriers to be broken in previously all-male track and field events.
Because of all the celebrity she received from her track career, she took a year off from her studies to make appearances and compete in international track events. She returned and received a Bachelor’s degree in education, graduating in 1963.
There were other honors as well. In 1963 she was selected to represent the U. S. State Department as a Goodwill Ambassador at the Games of Friendship in Dakar, Senegal. Later that year she was invited by Dr. Billy Graham to join the Baptist Christian Athletes in Japan.
In 1963, Wilma married her high school sweetheart, Robert Eldridge, with whom she had four children: Yolanda (1958), Djuanna (1964), Robert Jr. (1965), and Xurry (1971). They later divorced.
There was one “first” accomplishment that was more special than any of the others, however. For Wilma, the fact that she insisted that her homecoming parade in Clarksville, Tennessee be open to everyone and not a segregated event as was the usual custom. Her victory parade was the first racially integrated event ever held in the town. And that night, the banquet the townspeople held in her honor, was the first time in Clarksville’s history that blacks and whites had ever gathered together for the same event. She went on to participate in protests in the city until the segregation laws were struck down.
After retiring from track competition, Wilma returned to Clarksville to live. She taught at her old school, Cobb Elementary, and was the track coach at her alma mater, Burt High School. She replaced her old coach, Clinton Gray, who, tragically, had been killed in an auto accident. But small town life proved to be too conservative after all her worldly experiences. She moved on to coaching positions, first in Maine, and then, Indiana. She was invited to be the guest speaker at dozens of schools and universities. She also went into broadcasting and became a sports commentator on national television and the co-host of a network radio show.
In 1967 Vice-President Hubert Humphrey invited Wilma to participate in “Operation Champ,” an athletic outreach program for underprivileged youth in the ghettoes of 16 major cities. She started her own non-profit organization, The Wilma Rudolph Foundation, to continue this kind of work. The foundation provided free coaching in a variety of sports, and academic assistance and support as well.
In 1977 she wrote her autobiography, simply titled, “Wilma.” It was adapted as a television movie; Wilma worked on it as a consultant.
In 1997, Governor Don Sundquist proclaimed June 23 as Wilma Rudolph Day in Tennessee.
Wilma died in her home in Nashville, Tennessee. She had been in and out of hospitals for several months after brain cancer was diagnosed. Leroy Walker, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said, “All of us recognize that this is obviously a tremendous loss. Wilma was still very much involved with a number of Olympic programs. It’s a tragic loss. She was struck with an illness that, unfortunately, we can’t do very much about.” She died November 12, 1994 at the age of 54.
Rudolph Ran And The World Went Wild.
Wilma Rudolph was a sight to behold. At 5-foot-11 and 130 pounds, she was lightning fast. Wilma watchers in the late 1950s and early ’60s were admonished: don’t blink. You might miss her. And that would be a shame.
At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Rudolph became “the fastest woman in the world” and the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics. She won the 100- and 200-meter races and anchored the U.S. team to victory in the 4 x 100-meter relay, breaking records along the way.
In the 100, she tied the world record of 11.3 seconds in the semifinals, then won the final by three yards in 11.0. However, because of a 2.75-meter per second wind — above the acceptable limit of two meters per second — she didn’t receive credit for a world record. In the 200, she broke the Olympic record in the opening heat in 23.2 seconds and won the final in 24.0 seconds. In the relay, Rudolph, despite a poor baton pass, overtook Germany’s anchor leg, and the Americans, all women from Tennessee State, took the gold in 44.5 seconds after setting a world record of 44.4 seconds in the semifinals.
Rudolph’s Olympic performances (she also won a bronze medal at age 16 in the relay at Melbourne in 1956) were spectacular. But it is the story of how she got there that makes her accomplishments legendary.
She was born prematurely on June 23, 1940 in St. Bethlehem, Tenn. She weighed 4 1/2 pounds. The bulk of her childhood was spent in bed. She suffered from double pneumonia, scarlet fever and later she contacted polio. After losing the use of her left leg, she was fitted with metal leg braces when she was 6.
“I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to get them off,” she said. “But when you come from a large, wonderful family, there’s always a way to achieve your goals.”
Rudolph grew up in a poor family, the 20th of her father Ed’s 22 children (from two marriages). Although she never shared a home with all her siblings and half-siblings at once, there were still plenty of brothers and sisters to serve as “lookouts” if she mischievously removed her braces.
Her brothers and sisters took turns massaging her crippled leg every day. Once a week her mother Blanche, a domestic worker, drove her 90 miles roundtrip to a Nashville hospital for therapy.
Years of treatment and a determination to be a “normal kid” worked. Despite whooping cough, measles and chicken pox, Rudolph was out of her leg braces at age 9 and soon became a budding basketball star.
When she was 11, her brothers set up a basketball hoop in the yard. “After that,” her mother said, “it was basketball, basketball, basketball.”
At the all-African-American Burt High School, Rudolph played on the girls’ basketball team, where her coach, C.C. Gray, gave her the nickname, “Skeeter.”
“You’re little, you’re fast and you always get in my way,” he said.
Rudolph became an all-state player, setting a state record of 49 points in one game. Then Ed Temple came calling.
Temple, the Tennessee State track coach, asked Gray to form a girls’ track team so he could turn one of the forwards into a sprinter. And Wilma was the one.
She had natural ability she couldn’t explain. “I don’t know why I run so fast,” she said. “I just run.”
She loved it enough to begin attending Temple’s daily college practices while still in high school. Temple’s dedication was inspiring. He was a sociology professor at Tennessee State and unpaid coach. He drove the team to meets in his own car and had the school track, an unmarked and unsurfaced dirt oval, lined at his own expense.
But Temple was no soft touch. He made the girls run an extra lap for every minute they were late to practice. Rudolph once overslept practice by 30 minutes and was made to run 30 extra laps. The next day she was sitting on the track 30 minutes early.
Unity and teamwork were Temple’s passions. He reminded reporters after Rudolph became famous that there were three other gold medalists on the platform with her during the relay event. Almost the entire 1960 Olympic team, coached by Temple, came from his Tennessee State team.
Rudolph didn’t forget her teammates, either. She said her favorite event was the relay because she got to stand on the platform with them. Regardless, the press and fans in Rome flocked to her.
The newspapers called her “The Black Pearl” and “The Black Gazelle.” After the Olympics, when the team competed in Greece, England, Holland and Germany, it was the charming, beautiful Rudolph, fans wanted to watch perform.
Sports Illustrated reported that mounted police had to keep back her admirers in Cologne. In Berlin, fans stole her shoes then surrounded her bus and beat on it with their fists until she waved.
“She’s done more for her country than what the U.S. could have paid her for,” Temple said.
She did more than promote her country. In her soft-spoken, gracious manner, she paved the way for African-American athletes, both men and women, who came later.
When she returned from Rome, Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington, who was elected as “an old-fashioned segregationist,” planned to head her welcome home celebration. Rudolph said she would not attend a segregated event.
Rudolph’s parade and banquet were the first integrated events in her hometown of Clarksville.
Rudolph especially inspired young African-American female athletes. Most notable was Florence Griffith Joyner, the next woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics (1988).
“It was a great thrill for me to see,” Rudolph said. “I thought I’d never get to see that. Florence Griffith Joyner — every time she ran, I ran.”
Bob Kersee, husband and coach of Jackie Joyner-Kersee, said Rudolph was the greatest influence for African-American women athletes that he knows. His wife went further. “She was always in my corner,” said Joyner-Kersee, winner of six Olympic medals. “If I had a problem, I could call her at home. It was like talking to someone you knew for a lifetime.”
Rudolph touched Olympians and non-Olympians alike. She had four kids of her own and in her post-Olympic years she worked as a track coach at Indiana’s DePauw University and served as a U.S. goodwill ambassador to French West Africa.
She said her greatest accomplishment was creating the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a not-for-profit, community-based amateur sports program.
“I tell them that the most important aspect is to be yourself and have confidence in yourself,” she said. “I remind them the triumph can’t be had without the struggle.”
Honors kept coming for Rudolph. She was voted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1973 and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974. NBC made a movie about her life from her autobiography, “Wilma.”
Rudolph died of brain cancer at age 54 on Nov. 12, 1994 in Nashville. Her extraordinary calm and grace are what people remember most about her. Said Bill Mulliken, a 1960 Olympics teammate of Rudolph’s: “She was beautiful, she was nice, and she was the best.”
Thanks for your attention.