By Jueseppi B.
Wilma Glodean Rudolph (June 23, 1940 – November 12, 1994) was an American track & field athlete. Rudolph was considered the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s and competed in two Olympic Games, in 1956 and in 1960.
In the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games. A track and field champion, she elevated women’s track to a major presence in the United States. She is also regarded as a civil rights and women’s rights pioneer. Along with other 1960 Olympic athletes such as Cassius Clay, who later became Muhammad Ali, Rudolph became an international star due to the first international television coverage of the Olympics that year.
The powerful sprinter emerged from the 1960 Rome Olympics as “The Tornado,” the fastest woman on earth The Italians nicknamed her La Gazzella Negra (“The Black Gazelle”); to the French she was La Perle Noire (“The Black Pearl”). She is one of the most famous Tennessee State University Tigerbelles, the name of the TSU women’s track and field program.
Wilma Rudolph was born prematurely at 4.5 lbs., the 20th of 22 other brothers and sisters, and caught infantile paralysis (caused by the polio virus) as a very young child. She recovered, but wore a brace on her left leg and foot which had become twisted as a result. By the time she was twelve years old, she had also survived scarlet fever, whooping cough, chickenpox, and measles. Her family drove her regularly from Clarksville, Tennessee, to Nashville, Tennessee for treatments to straighten her twisted leg. She also had to have a leg brace on for three years (6 to 9).
In 1952, 12-year-old Rudolph finally achieved her dream of shedding her handicap and becoming like other children. Her older sister was on a basketball team, and Wilma vowed to follow in her footsteps. While in high school, Rudolph was on the basketball team when she was spotted by Tennessee State track and field coach Edward S. Temple.
Being discovered by Temple was a major break for a young athlete. The day he saw the tenth grader for the first time, he knew he had found a natural athlete. Rudolph had already gained some track experience on Burt High School’s track team two years before, mostly as a way to keep busy between basketball seasons.
While attending Burt High School, Rudolph became a basketball star, setting state records for scoring and leading her team to the state championship. By the time she was 16, she earned a berth on the U.S. Olympic track and field team and came home from the 1956 Melbourne Games with an Olympic bronze medal in the 4 x 100 m relay.
At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome she won three Olympic titles: the 100 m, 200 m and the 4 x 100 m relay. As the temperature climbed toward 110 degrees, 80,000 spectators jammed the Stadio Olimpico. Rudolph ran the 100-meter dash in an impressive 11 seconds flat. However the time was not credited as a world record, because it was wind-aided. She also won the 200-meter dash in 23.2 seconds, a new Olympic record. After these wins, she was being hailed throughout the world as “the fastest woman in history”. Finally, on September 11, 1960, she combined with Tennessee State teammates Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams and Barbara Jones to win the 400-meter relay in 44.5 seconds, setting a world record. Rudolph had a special, personal reason to hope for victory—to pay tribute to Jesse Owens, the celebrated American athlete who had been her inspiration, also the star of the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Berlin, Germany. Rudolph sprinted in the Drake Relays in Des Moines, IA and won first place.
Rudolph retired from track competition in 1962 at age 22 after winning two races at a U.S.–Soviet meet.
Rudolph was United Press Athlete of the Year 1960 and Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year for 1960 and 1961. Also in 1961, the year of her father’s death, Rudolph won the James E. Sullivan Award, an award for the top amateur athlete in the United States, and visited President John F. Kennedy.
She was voted into the National Black Sports and Entertainment Hall of Fame in 1973 and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974.
In 1994, the portion of U. S. Route 79 in Clarksville, Tennessee between the Interstate 24 exit 4 in Clarksville to the Red River (Lynnwood-Tarpley) bridge near the Kraft Street intersection was renamed to honor Wilma Rudolph.
In 1963, Rudolph was granted a full scholarship to Tennessee State University where she received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education. After her athletic career, Rudolph worked as a teacher at Cobb Elementary School, coaching track at Burt High School, and became a sports commentator on national television.
She married her high school sweetheart Robert Eldridge in 1963, and had four children: Yolanda (b. 1958), Djuanna (b. 1964), Robert Jr. (b. 1965) and Xurry (b. 1971). Rudolph and Eldridge later divorced.
In July 1994, shortly after her mother’s death, Rudolph was diagnosed with brain and throat cancer. On November 12, 1994, at age 54, she died of cancer in her home in Nashville. At the time of her death, she had four children, eight grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews.
Thousands of mourners filled Tennessee State University’s Kean Hall on November 17, 1994, for the memorial service in her honor. Others attended the funeral at Clarksville’s First Baptist Church. Across Tennessee, the state flag flew at half-mast.
Nine months after Rudolph’s death, Tennessee State University, on August 11, 1995, dedicated its new six-story dormitory the “Wilma G. Rudolph Residence Center.” A black marble marker was placed on her grave in Clarksville’s Foster Memorial Garden Cemetery by the Wilma Rudolph Memorial Commission on November 21, 1995. In 1997, Governor Don Sundquist proclaimed that June 23 be known as “Wilma Rudolph Day” in Tennessee.
The Woman’s Sports Foundation Wilma Rudolph Courage Award is presented to a female athlete who exhibits extraordinary courage in her athletic performance, demonstrates the ability to overcome adversity, makes significant contributions to sports and serves as an inspiration and role model to those who face challenges, overcomes them and strives for success at all levels. This award was first given in 1996 to Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
A life-size bronze statue of Rudolph stands at the southern end of the Cumberland River Walk at the base of the Pedestrian Overpass, College Street and Riverside Drive, in Clarksville.
In 2000 Sports Illustrated magazine ranked Rudolph as number one in its listing of the top fifty greatest sports figures in twentieth-century Tennessee.
Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Berlin in 1994, Berlin American High School (BAHS) was turned over to the people of Berlin and became the “Gesamtschule Am Hegewinkel.” The school was renamed the “Wilma Rudolph Oberschule” in her honor in the summer 2000.
Next in The “One A Day” Black History Month Series….Ms, Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known as Ms. Nina Simone.
Filed under: Black History, Celebs & Fame, History, Race, Sports | Tagged: 1960 Summer Olympics, Black History Month, Muhammad Ali, Olympic, Olympic Games, United States, Wilma Glodean Rudolph, Wilma Rudolph | 20 Comments »