Wilma Rudolph was one of the world’s best-known athletes. How and why she did what she did are as amazing as her accomplishments. She was born premature on June 23, 1940, in Bethlehem, Tennessee. Wilma was born into a large family (the 20th of 22 children), in a time when African-Americans weren’t at the top of the list to get help at America’s finest hospitals. She had many diseases as a child, including polio, scarlet fever, and pneumonia; one result of this was that her left leg was partially deformed.
This young girl was not one to give up and wanted to be just like any other kid. She wore braces to help herself walk. Her family gave her daily massages on her leg and also drove her to physical therapy sessions. All of these things put together led to the astonishing development of Wilma’s taking off the braces entirely when she was 9. Two years later, she was playing basketball! (In her later life, she was fond of saying this: “My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”).
Rudolph proved to be a remarkable athlete and caught the attention of Ed Temple, the track coach at nearby Tennessee State University. She reiterated her dream to Ed – “I want to be the fastest woman on earth”. Ed answered – “With your spirit no one can stop you”. Ed decided to help her in the training. Wilma Rudolph later became the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympics, in Rome in 1960. She won the 100 and 200 meters and teamed with Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams and Barbara Jones to win the 400 relay. Temple has said in an interview that Rudolph was the best female track and field athlete he’d ever seen.”She had it all,” he said. “She had the charisma, she had the athletic ability, she had everything. When I look back, she opened up the door for women’s sports, period. I’m not just talking about track and field.” Temple said Rudolph took a nap just before winning the 1960 gold medal in the 100. “I was out there all nervous, walking around the infield,” he recalled. “And Wilma was on the rub-down table, and she had fallen asleep. Fell asleep!”
Rudolph remained a public figure, working to help young athletes get better and to improve the rights of African-Americans. She worked as a track coach at DePauw University, in Indiana. She created the Wilma Rudolph Foundation to help young athletes get the recognition and support they deserved. She was voted into the National Track and Field Hall of Hame, as well as the Black Athletes Hall of Fame and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. She was also a sports commentator.
Sadly, she died of brain cancer on November 12, 1994. She was just 54. She was remembered as an amazing athlete and a powerful voice for African-Americans and their struggle for equality.