In commemorating Women’s Heritage Month, we reflect on the legacy of world-renowned sprinter Wilma Glodean Rudolph. By the time she was a teenager. she had overcome more challenges than many people do in an entire lifetime. Doing so forged her indomitable will, which drove her to earn honors as a world-record-holder and multi-medal Olympian, as well as an international sports icon.
Born premature and underweight (4.5lbs) June 23, 1940, in Saint Bethlehem, Tenn., to Blanche Rudolph, she was the 20th of her father’s, Ed Rudolph, 22 children from two marriages. As a child, she endured several illnesses, including pneumonia, polio, and scarlet fever. She contracted infantile paralysis at the age of 5, which weakened her left foot and leg. She wore a metal brace and orthopedic shoe until she was 8 years old.
“My doctor told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother,” she wrote in her autobiography, “Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph.”
During a Sunday church service one day, Rudolph discarded her leg brace and headed to the front, to everyone’s amazement. She had no need for them by 12 years of age, and her sister Yvonne inspired her to play basketball, helping Burt High School win a state championship. She also ran track, attending Tennessee State University’s track camp at 14, on Ed Temple’s recommendation.
In 1956, Rudolph helped the U.S 400-meter relay track team win a bronze medal at the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.
During 1959’s Pan American Games in Chicago, Ill., Rudolph won a silver medal in the 100-meter individual event, and a gold medal in the 4×100-meter relay.
She had won three AAU indoor titles before the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy, where she became the first African American woman to win three Olympic gold medals (100 meters, 200 meters, and 4×100-meter relay), while setting new world records.
Due to her beauty, grace, and speed, reporters nicknamed her “The Black Gazelle,” and “the fastest woman on Earth.” The first global media coverage of the Olympics caused her to become one of the most recognizable Black women worldwide. She heightened awareness about women’s track and field.
Rudolph retired from track competition in 1962 as the world record-holder in the 100- and 200-meter individual events and the 4×100-meter relays.
She graduated from Tennessee State University in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in education, and became a teacher and track coach. That year, she visited West Africa for a month as a goodwill ambassador for the U.S State Department. Upon returning the U.S. in May, she participated in a civil rights desegregation protest in her hometown of Clarksville. She also married Robert Eldridge; they had four children but divorced after 17 years.
Rudolph was diagnosed with brain and throat cancer in mid-1994, and she deteriorated rapidly. She died on November 12, 1994, at her home in Brentwood at 54.
In 1997, June 23 became “Wilma Rudolph Day” in Tennessee.
ESPN ranked her 41st in its listing of the 20th century’s greatest athletes. The U.S. Postal Service issued a Distinguished Americans postal stamp in her honor in 2004.
“I wanted to show that there was something special inside me. Everybody is special. You just have to realize it within yourself,” Rudolph said. “Winning is great, but if someone wants to succeed at something, they need to learn how to lose. The triumph can’t be had without the struggle.”