Happy Birthday Wilma Rudolph!
On June 23, 1940 an Olympic star was born. The journey to get this title was a difficult one. Rudolph was born premature, with numerous health problems. After developing pneumonia and polio many figured she would be disabled for her whole life. Because of leg problems she had to wear a brace on her left leg for years. Speaking of her childhood Rudolph stated:
My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.
Rudolph and her mother were right. After years of physical therapy she pushed through the disease and physical disabilities. Rudolph attended Burt High School in Clarksville, Tennessee. According to TN History for Kids Rudolph’s father was very influential in her start in track. Initially it was Rudolph’s sister that made the track team, Rudolph had not made the cut. Their father told the coach that the sisters came as a “package deal”, so Wilma made the team. A few years later she ran at Tuskegee Institute, losing every single race. Tennessee State University (TSU) track coach Ed Temple was there that day, and he thought Rudolph had promise. He was right.
One year later when Rudolph was only 16 years old she took home the bronze medal at the 1956 Melbourne, Australia Olympics. Although she was a hero to her hometown she struggled upon returning to her poor family in Tennessee. At age 17 Rudolph got pregnant, hindering her to participate in any sports her last year of high school. Some worried she would not run again, but with the help of her sister she was able to go to TSU and run for Ed Temple.
Along with three of her TSU track teammates she made the 1960 Olympic team in Rome, Italy. She took home gold for the 100-meter race, the 200-meter race and was a member of the team that won the 400-meter women’s relay. That day Rudolph became the first woman ever to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympics.
When Rudolph returned home to Tennessee again the Governor had planned a welcome home ceremony for her. Since the celebration would be segregated she said she refused to attend the event. Due to her objection the celebration became the first integrated event in the town of Clarksville. She continued to partake in protests in Clarksville until all the segregation laws were abolished.
After the 1960 Olympics Rudolph went on to work as an elementary teacher and track coach, inspiring budding track stars. Rudolph commented on her work saying,
It’s important for me to work with young people […]. I hope to identify and create some other minority leaders […]. I have always believed that the most important aspect of my life is working with young people. It’s been my dream to start programs that, through athletics, foster education.
Rudolph carried out this mission until brain cancer took her life in 1994. Since her passing June 23rd has been named “Wilma Rudolph Day” by a Tennessee Governor, awards are given in her honor, and a bronze statue of Wilma sits in her hometown of Clarksville.
I will end this post with a quote of Rudolph’s that I cannot stop thinking about:
I believe in me more than anything in this world