Wilma Rudolph Biography
From being born prematurely at 4.5 pounds, having every childhood illness and finally crippled with polio, to becoming one of the most celebrated female athletes of all time, Wilma Rudolph’s biography is one of determination and courage. She was born in Tennessee in 1940, the twentieth child of 22. The family was honest, hardworking and very poor. Her father was a porter for the railroad and her mother was a housekeeper for “white” families. When Wilma was sick she was not allowed to be treated in the “white” hospital in Clarksville so her mother spent much of her time nursing her back to health. Her mother also tutored her at home until the age of seven.
The doctors discovered Wilma had a weak left leg and foot and she was diagnosed with polio that had no cure. Her mother took her twice a week to a black medical college 50 miles away for two years. She was finally put in a brace and her mother was taught the physical therapy exercises Wilma needed to do. Finally, at the age of twelve, Wilma was able to walk without the aid of any braces, crutches, or special shoes. It was then she decided to become an athlete.
In junior high, Wilma joined the basketball team where she didn’t even play a game for three years. In her sophomore year, she was finally allowed to play as a starting guard. She was noticed by Ed Temple, a coach from Tennessee State University. He invited her to the summer sports camp at TSU. After high school graduation, she was given a full scholarship to TSU but took off some time to participate in the international track events that made her famous. She received a Bachelor’s in Education in 1963. She married her high school sweetheart that same year and the couple had four children.
Her accomplishments were many. The first accomplishment was getting well. In high school, she led her team to the state championships. She then became a track star and went to her first Olympic Games in 1956 when she was sixteen and won a bronze medal in the 4x4 relay. She went back to the Olympics in 1960 where she won three gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter dash, and as anchor on the 400-meter relay team. She also broke gender barriers in previously all-male sports.
She won numerous awards including United Press Athlete of the Year (1960); Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year (1960); Black Sports Hall of Fame (1980); U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame (1983); and the Women’s Sports Foundation Award (1984). In 1963, she represented the U.S. State Department as a Goodwill Ambassador at the Games of Friendship in Dakar, Senegal. She also joined Dr. Billy Graham in Japan at the Baptist Christian Athletes. Her most special accomplishment, however, was at the homecoming parade and banquet held for her in Clarksville, Tennessee. They were the first desegregated events ever held in Clarksville. She continued to join in the protests in her home town until segregation laws were eliminated.
When she retired from competition, she went home and taught at her old elementary school and was track coach at her high school. She eventually became bored with small town life and went on to coach in both Maine and Indiana. She was guest speaker at many schools, did sports commentating, and co-hosted a network show. She also formed The Wilma Rudolph Foundation that provided free coaching for underprivileged youth and helped them academically, as well. In 1977, she wrote her autobiography entitled “Wilma” which was later turned into a movie where she acted as a consultant. In 1997, the governor of Tennessee declared June 23 as Wilma Rudolph Day.
Wilma Rudolph died at home in 1994 at the age of 54 from brain cancer for which there was no cure. She was in and out of the hospital several times in the months prior to her death. She was still very involved in the Olympic programs, and they felt a tremendous loss when she passed on.