Wilma Rudolph had the deck stacked firmly against her. She was born prematurely, weighing only four and a half pounds. Wilma Rudolph was a black girl in the segregated South. She suffered from more maladies as a youth than any one person should have to endure. Wilma Rudolph contracted polio at an early age and was told she would never walk. Despite all of these hardships, despite the remarkable odds against her, Wilma Rudolph persevered. The doctors would be right about one thing. Wilma wouldn’t walk. Wilma Rudolph would run, right into the hearts and consciousness of America and the world.
She was born in Clarksville, Tennessee on June 23rd, 1940, into what can only be described as a large family. How Large? Wilma was the twentieth of twenty two children! Her parents were Ed and Blanche Rudolph; her father worked as a railroad porter, her mother was a housekeeper for the area’s wealthy white families. Her premature birth caused a variety of health problems, but segregation did not allow her parents to have her treated at the local hospital. Clarksville had but one black doctor, but money was so tight that Wilma’s mother was forced to nurse her daughter through her many illnesses on her own, without medical supervision. She came down with the proverbial who’s who of childhood diseases; Wilma contracted mumps, measles, chicken pox, double pneumonia, and scarlet fever. She finally had to be taken to a doctor when it was discovered that her left leg was becoming deformed and unable to support her weight.
The black medical college of Fisk University in Nashville was called Meharry Hospital. Located fifty miles from Clarksville, it was the only available venue that offered Wilma a chance at a normal life. Her mother took her there twice a week for over two years. Wilma was fitted with a metal brace, which allowed her to walk, but physician’s held out little hope that she would be ambulatory without the device. They showed Wilma’s mother how to massage the leg and perform physical therapy on the crippled limb. With the help of her mother’s, brothers’ and sisters’ constant massages, urging, and dedication, Wilma was able to discard the brace, crutches, and corrective shoes by the age of twelve.
She became attracted to sports immediately, and decided to try basketball at her segregated junior high school. She joined the team, but didn’t play for three years. When she got her chance, she stood out, and as a starting guard led her team to the state tournament where she was spotted by Ed Temple, the coach of the famous Tennessee State University Tigerbells, a national track team that was an annual powerhouse in the sport. After Wilma Rudolph attended a summer camp at the university, she received a full scholarship to Tennessee State, from which she would graduate in 1963.
As a high school sophomore, Wilma set the Tennessee state record for points in a game. She was an undefeated sprinter on the track team and began to attend the college practices while still in high school. She made the United States Olympic team at age sixteen, and won a bronze medal in the 4 x 100 relays in Melbourne in 1956. She continued her training and four years later in the Rome games of 1960, Wilma Rudolph dominated as no woman had ever dominated.
In Rome, Rudolph sped to the title of “the fastest woman in the world” and became the first American woman to earn three gold medals in one Olympics. She won the 100 meter and 200 meter sprint races and was the anchor of the United States 4 x 100 meter relay team. In the 100, she equaled the world record of 11.3 seconds in the semifinals, and then destroyed her competition in the final by a whopping three yards in a time of 11.0, a world record. However, a 2.75-meter per second wind, above the acceptable limit of two meters per second, disallowed her world mark. In the 200, she shattered the Olympic record in the opening heat with a clocking of 23.2 seconds and easily won the final in 24.0 seconds. In the relay, Wilma Rudolph overcame a potentially disastrous poor baton pass and ran down Germany’s anchor leg, propelling the American girls, all from Tennessee State, to the gold in 44.5 seconds after they had set a world record of 44.4 seconds in the semifinals.
She became an instant celebrity. The newspapers dubbed her “The Black Pearl” and “The Black Gazelle.” When the team competed in post- Olympic meets in Greece, England, Holland and Germany, it was Rudolph that the fans flocked to see. She was an elegant combination of beauty and grace. Mounted police had to keep back her fans in Cologne, while in Berlin fans surrounded her bus and beat on it with their fists until she waved. When she returned to Tennessee, the governor, Buford Ellington, a noted segregationist, planned a victory parade for her. But the dignified sprinter refused to attend unless blacks and whites were allowed to be there together. Wilma Rudolph’s parade was the first integrated event held in Clarksville.
Wilma Rudolph competed at the international level for only a brief time, retiring from track in 1962. Among her many awards were the United Press Athlete of the Year for 1960, the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year 1960, the prestigious James E. Sullivan Award for Good Sportsmanship 1961, The Babe Zaharias Award for 1962, the European Sportswriters’ Sportsman of the Year, and the Christopher Columbus Award for Most Outstanding International Sports Personality of 1960. After her retirement from track competition, Wilma returned to her hometown of Clarksville to reside. She married her high school sweetheart, Robert Eldridge, in 1963. They had four children before their divorce. She became a teacher at her old school, Cobb Elementary, and served as track coach at Burt High School, her alma mater where she had vaulted to fame from. She eventually became a guest speaker at scores of schools and universities. She delved into broadcasting and became a sports commentator on national television and also the co-host of a network radio show. In 1967, Vice-President Hubert Humphrey asked Wilma Rudolph to be a part of “Operation Champ,” an athletic outreach program aimed at the underpriveleged youth of sixteen major United States cities. She founded her own non-profit organization, The Wilma Rudolph Foundation. The foundation made available free coaching in several sports, as well as academic assistance and support. In 1977 she penned her autobiography, “Wilma.”; it was made into a television movie with Wilma as a consultant.
Wilma Rudolph was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1994 and succumbed to the one terrible disease that she could not beat on November 12th, 1994, at the age of 54. She had conquered childhood sickness, polio, and the injustice of segregation to become arguably the greatest female athlete of all time and an ambassador of goodwill, famous throughout the world. When asked once about her bout with polio, and the leg braces that she wore, she replied, “I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to get them off, but when you come from a large, wonderful family, there’s always a way to achieve your goals.”