Known in her later years for motivational speaking, coaching, and working with underprivileged children, Wilma Glodean Rudolph beat the odds and became an American sprinter, an national hero – a Tennessee with heart. Born on June 23, 1940, in the small town of St. Bethlehem near Clarksville, Tennessee, she was the 20th of 22 children, weighing only 4 ½ pounds. Her mother, Blanche, worried about her survival from the beginning.
The Black Gazelle
At four years old, she was declared to have polio. This disease, combined with childhood bouts of double pneumonia and scarlet fever, let Rudolph with a crippled leg. Few believed that she would ever walk unassisted, but her family refused to give up on her. Twice a week, Rudolph’s mother took her to a hospital for black patients fifty miles away from home. Rudolph’s family made sure she received her physical therapy, rubbing her bad leg four times a day. It worked. One day, when she was nine, Rudolph removed her brace and walked down the aisle of her church by herself. But at that time, no one, not even Wilma, ever imagined that one day the European press would dub her “The Black Gazelle” for her speed, grace, and beauty when she earned the title of “Fastest Woman in the World” and became a gold medalist at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy.
“Fastest Woman in the World”
The little girl with the bad leg turned out to be a natural athlete. “By the time I was twelve,” she told Chicago Tribute, “I was challenging every boy in our neighborhood at running, jumping, everything.” By the time Rudolph was in high school, she had become a basketball star, setting state records for scoring and led her team to the state championship. It has been said that she was a teenager before she learned what the Olympics were –but Rudolph was a quick study.
In 1956, when she was sixteen, Wilma participated in the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. Under the training of Tennessee State University track coach, Ed Temple, Rudolph helped her team bring home the bronze medal for the 400 meter relay. Later, in 1958, Rudolph was given a full scholarship to Tennessee State University and became a member of Ed Temple’s “Tigerbelles” track team. However, it was her participation in the 1960 Olympics that made Rudolph a household name. USA Track & Field relates, that at 5’11” and 130 pounds, “Wilma Rudolph was grace in motion.” She set the world record for the 200 meter dash at the Olympic trails and went on to win medals for the 100 and 200 meter races and another as a member of the 400 meter relay team. When she returned to Tennessee, she was honored with Clarksville’s first racially integrated parade.
Hall of Fame Inductee
In 1961, Rudolph received the Sullivan Award, which is given annually to the top amateur athlete in the United States. She graduated from TSE in 1963 with a degree in education. Rudolph was inducted into the Black Sports Hall of Fame, the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame, the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 1993, she became the first recipient of President Clinton’s National Sports Award. She was also honored with a commemorative stamp.
Down to Earth Person
Even after ticker tape parades, an official invitation to the White House by President John F. Kennedy, and many awards and television appearances the little girl some thought would never walk had raced her way to the top. But she didn’t let success go to her head. “she was just a down-to-earth person like your next door neighbor,” says Rudolph’s childhood friend, Gene Washer. “She’d sit down and talk to you about what was going on. You wouldn’t have thought in sitting down and talking with her she was a famous athlete. Wilma was very proud of her career, what she had accomplished, and what she had done for the African American. She is already down in history as a great, great athlete, and I don’t think there are many around who have accomplished what she has. This community is very proud of her.”
In 1994, at the age of fifty-four, Rudolph died prematurely, but due to her many accomplishments her legacy continues. She founded the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, dedicated to promoting amateur athletics, authored an autobiography, “Wilma,” served in 1991 as an ambassador to the European celebration of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, and served as a consultant to the university track teams. The City of Clarksville, Tennessee, named a street after this hometown hero and she is honored with a statue that stands in front of the Montgomery County Museum.