Runner Wilma Rudolph’s life is the story of a great spirit and heart overcoming obstacles that would have stopped anyone else in their tracks, literally! Born in Bethlehem, Tennessee, in 1955, Wilma contracted polio at the age of four and was left with a useless leg.
Wilma’s family was in dire straits with a total of eighteen children from her father’s two marriages. Both parents worked constantly to feed the burgeoning brood, her father as a porter and her mother as a house cleaner, and it was more important to feed Wilma and her siblings than it was to get the medical attention Wilma needed to recover the use of her leg. Two years later circumstances eased a bit, and, at the age of six, Wilma started riding the back of the bus with her mother to Nashville twice a week for physical therapy. Although doctors predicted she would never walk without braces, Wilma kept up her rehabilitation program for five years and not only did the braces come off, but “by the time I was twelve,” she told the Chicago Tribune, “I was challenging every boy in the neighborhood at running, jumping, everything.”
Her exceptional ability didn’t go unnoticed. A coach with Tennessee State University saw how she was winning every race she entered in high school and offered to train her for the Olympics, which Wilma hadn’t even heard of. Nevertheless, she qualified for the Olympics at sixteen and took home a bronze medal in the 1956 Summer Games for the 100-meter relay. Still in high school, she decided to work toward a gold medal for the 1960 games.
Well, she did that and more. The three gold medals she won in the 1960 Olympics in Rome—in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and the 4 by 100 relay— turned her into a superstar overnight. Wilma was the first American woman ever to win triple gold in a single Olympics. People were stumbling over the top of each other to find the superlatives to describe her. The French named Wilma “La Gazelle,” and in America she was known as “The Fastest Woman on Earth.” Wilma was everybody’s darling after that, with invitations to the JFK White House and numerous guest appearances on television. The flip side of all the glory was, however, that Wilma received hardly any financial reward for her public appearances and had to work odd jobs to get through college.
One year later, Wilma again set the world on fire by breaking the record for the 100-meter dash: 11.2 seconds. Unpredictably, Wilma sat out the ’64 Olympic Games and stayed in school, graduating with a degree in education and returning to the very school she had attended as a youngster to teach second grade. In 1967, she worked for the Job Corps and Operation Champion, a program that endeavored to bring star athletes into American ghettos as positive role models for young kids. Wilma herself loved to talk to kids about sports and was a powerful symbol with her inspiring story.
That Wilma touched the lives of children is best evidenced in a letter writing campaign taken up by a class of fourth graders in Jessup, Maryland, who requested the World Book Encyclopedia correct their error in excluding the world-class athlete. The publisher complied immediately! Wilma has also been honored with induction into both the Olympic Hall of Fame and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. A film version of her autobiography Wilma starring Cicely Tyson was produced to tremendous acclaim. Her death from terminal brain cancer took place shortly after she received an honor as one of “The Great Ones” at the premiere National Sports Awards in 1993.
“I have spent a lifetime trying to share what it has meant to be a woman first in the world of sports so that other young women will have a chance to reach their dreams.”
— Wilma Rudolph