NAME: Wilma Glodean Rudolph
BIRTHDATE: June 23, 1940
BIRTHPLACE: Clarksville, Tennessee
Wilma Rudolph was born into a large family -- she was the 20th of 22 children! Her parents, Ed and Blanche Rudolph, were honest, hardworking people, but were very poor. Mr. Rudolph worked as a railroad porter and handyman. Mrs. Rudolph did cooking, laundry and housecleaning for wealthy white families.
Wilma was born prematurely and weighed only 4.5 pounds. Again, because of racial segregation, she and her mother were not permitted to be cared for at the local hospital. It was for whites only. There was only one black doctor in Clarksville, and the Rudolph's budget was tight, so Wilma's mother spent the next several years nursing Wilma through one illness after another: measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox and double pneumonia. But, she had to be taken to the doctor when it was discovered that her left leg and foot were becoming weak and deformed. She was told she had polio, a crippling disease that had no cure. The doctor told Mrs. Rudolph that Wilma would never walk. But Mrs. Rudolph would not give up on Wilma. She found out that she could be treated at Meharry Hospital, the black medical college of Fisk University in Nashville. Even though it was 50 miles away, Wilma's mother took her there twice a week for two years, until she was able to walk with the aid of a metal leg brace. Then the doctors taught Mrs. Rudolph how to do the physical therapy exercises at home. All of her brothers and sisters helped too, and they did everything to encourage her to be strong and work hard at getting well. Finally, by age 12, she could walk normally, without the crutches, brace, or corrective shoes. It was then that she decided to become an athlete.
Wilma Rudolph's life is a story of achieving against the odds. Her first accomplishments were to stay alive and get well!
In high school, she became a basketball star first, who set state records for scoring and led her team to a state championship. Then she became a track star, going to her first Olympic Games in 1956 at the age of 16. She won a bronze medal in the 4x4 relay.
On September 7th, 1960, in Rome, Wilma became the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in the Olympics. She won the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and ran the anchor on the 400-meter relay team.
This achievement led her to become one of the most celebrated female athletes of all time. In addition, her celebrity caused gender barriers to be broken in previously all-male track and field events.
There was one "first" accomplishment that was more special than any of the others, however. For Wilma, the fact that she insisted that her homecoming parade in Clarksville, Tennessee be open to everyone and not a segregated event as was the usual custom. Her victory parade was the first racially integrated event ever held in the town. And that night, the banquet the townspeople held in her honor, was the first time in Clarksville's history that blacks and whites had ever gathered together for the same event. She went on to participate in protests in the city until the segregation laws were struck down.
DATE OF DEATH: Saturday, November 12, 1994, at the age of 54. Wilma died in her home in Nashville, Tennessee. She had been in and out of hospitals for several months after brain cancer was diagnosed.