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Black History Month special: African-American women history-makers in sports Wilma Rudolph, superstar U.S Olympian

By B.L. OLIVER | 2/27/2014, 10:15 p.m.
Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph was prematurely born in Bethlehem, Tenn., on June 23, 1940. In spite of being sickly as a child, she became an African-American pioneer and a U.S. Olympian in track and field.

However, the road to becoming an Olympian was not easy for young Rudolph. She was stricken with polio as a child and had to wear a brace on her left leg. Through physical therapy, hard work and determination, she would overcome her disabilities.

Rudolph attended Burt High School, an all-Black school in the South before segregation was outlawed. She played basketball on the school’s team. She was a gifted high school athlete and extremely fast of foot. Word of mouth about Rudolph’s athletic talents, especially on the track, reached legendary Tennessee State University coach Ed Temple.

Rudolph was still in high school when she tried out for the U.S. Olympic team. The young girl, known as “Skeeter” among her classmates and friends, tried out and earned a place on the USA Sprint Medley team, which won a bronze medal at the 1956 Summer Olympic Games at Melbourne, Australia. At age 16, she was the youngest member of the USA team.

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Wilma Rudolph

Before long, Rudolph found herself at Tennessee State University as a member of the school’s women’s track team under Temple, who was the women’s coach at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.

After graduating from high school, Rudolph enrolled at Tennessee State University. She studied education and began training for the next Olympic Games in 1960. Rudolph ran faster than ever, and the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome became the “Wilma Games.” She broke the world record of 11.3 seconds in the 100-meter dash in the semi-finals, she broke the Olympic Games record in the 200-meter dash (23.2 seconds) in the semi-finals, and in the 4-by-100-meter relay finals, she led the team to a record 44.4 victory. Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals at the Olympic Games and was considered “The Fastest Woman in the World.” They loved her in Rome, and she became one of the most visible and popular individuals in the world. She was a superstar around the world for her groundbreaking achievements.

After the games, Rudolph made numerous appearances on television, receiving honors and awards, including the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year awards in both 1960 and 1961. An African-American pioneer, Rudolph retired from competition and became a teacher and a track coach.

Rudolph passed away in Brentwood, Tenn., on Nov. 12, 1994.