Wilma Rudolph was an exceptional American track and field athlete who overcame debilitating childhood illnesses and went on to become the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. Wilma Rudolph was born in 1940 in Bethlehem, Tenn. The twentieth of 22 children, she was born with polio and suffered from serious bouts of pneumonia and scarlet fever as a young child. All these ailments contributed to a bad leg that some said would prevent her from ever walking. But Wilma had a loving and devoted family who made sure she got medical attention and who provided physical therapy themselves four times a day.
She wore a leg brace from the time she was five until she was 11 years old. Then, one Sunday, she removed it and walked down the aisle of her church. When Wilma was 13, she got involved in organized sports at school, including basketball and track. Soon she was running and winning races. She was invited to a training camp at Tennessee State University by coach Ed Temple, who coached numerous track and field athletes and became Wilma’s most important professional influence. In 1956, when she was still a sophomore in high school, she participated in the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia.
She lost the 200 meter race, but her relay team took home the bronze medal. Wilma became more determined than ever. In 1958, she began college at Tennessee State University and became a member of Ed Temple’s “Tigerbelles” track team. In 1960, she set a world record for the 200 meter dash during the Olympic trials. Then during the Olympic games in Rome, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in the 100 meter dash, the 200 meter dash and the 400 meter relay. When she returned to Tennessee, she was honored with her hometown’s first racially integrated parade.
The next year she received a Sullivan Award, which is given annually to the top amateur athlete in the United States. Subsequent honors included the Black Sports Hall of Fame, the U. S. Track and Field Hall of Fame, the U. S. Olympic Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame. In 1993, she became the first recipient of President Clinton’s National Sports Award. Wilma had worked her way through school and later became a coach and teacher. Her autobiography, “Wilma Rudolph on Track”, was a bestseller, and in 1977 it became a television movie, starring Cicely Tyson.
Wilma’s greatest pride was her four children. On Nov. 12, 1994, Wilma Rudolph died of a brain tumor at the age of 54. The Olympic flag covered her casket at her funeral. She will always be remembered for her inspirational determination to overcome her physical disabilities. Through the love of her family and her religious convictions she rose above the racism and segregation of her time. She recognized the importance of good teachers in her own life, and later became a teacher herself. Wilma Rudolph was not only a sports hero, she was also a family hero and a teacher hero.