Wilma Rudolph

by Julia from San Diego

"What do you do after you are world famous and nineteen or twenty and you have sat with prime ministers, kings and queens, the Pope?...You come back to the real world."
Wilma Rudolph (
Wilma Rudolph (

"My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother" (Wilma Rudolph Quotes). Believing her mother, Wilma Rudolph arose as one of the best runners in the world. On June 23, 1940, Wilma Glodean Rudolph became the newest member of an already large and poor family. She was often sick as a toddler and although she survived through polio, it rendered her left leg paralyzed. Not a single doctor believed that she would be able to walk again. Despite all this, Rudolph learned to walk, participated in the Olympics when she was only sixteen, and set numerous world records. As glamorous as her life seemed, Wilma Rudolph, an African American woman, lived during a period of segregation. But instead of feeling hated, she continuously used the fame she received from her miraculous victories to bring more light to the unappreciated African American race. Other than helping African Americans, she also founded organizations and joined many programs to aid talented young athletes who didn't have access to professional training. Although she started out with greater struggles that the young athletes she was helping, Wilma Rudolph's determination and perseverance brought her to the top, along with the opportunity to become a mentor and benefactor to young ones. 

Rudolph wins the 100m dash in the 1960 Olympics..  (
Rudolph wins the 100m dash in the 1960 Olympics.. (

Regardless of her complicated childhood, Wilma Rudolph's firm determination to overcome illnesses, disability, and discrimination never failed her. Wilma Rudolph lost the use of her left leg at the age of four due to polio. She was fitted with a brace, and doctors told her that she had to wear it from morning to night, but "When her parents were not around, Rudolph often took off the brace and tried to walk without a limp...the desire to walk like everyone else, became a driving force in her life" ("Wilma Rudolph." Notable Sports Figures). Despite being told by all the doctors that she would never be able to walk again, Wilma Rudolph relentlessly tried to. Rudolph was not a person who gained satisfaction from sitting in a chair while all the other kids were running around, so even when she felt weak and fatigued, her inner strength fueled her desire to prove the doctors wrong and walk like all the other children. The will to walk became the engine that powered her life, and at the age of twelve, after eight years of sitting, Wilma Rudolph was able to walk all by herself. She won her first Olympic medal when she was sixteen, only four years after learning how to walk. Recalling her experience of winning a bronze medal in the 1956 Olympics, Wilma Rudolph  "...told a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, "I remember going back to my high school this particular day with the bronze medal...They passed my bronze medal around so that everybody could touch, feel and see what an Olympic medal is like. When I got it back, there were handprints all over it. I took it and I started shining it up. I discovered that bronze doesn't shine. So, I decided, I'm going to try this one more time. I'm going to go for the gold" (Wilma Rudolph. Notable Sports Figures). Wilma Rudolph always looked forward to the future and never regretted her past. Even though she had already achieved a feat that others only dream about, she did not feel content with a result that did not show her best. The dream of earning a gold medal motivated Wilma Rudolph to continue intense training and participate in the 1960 Olympics and earn a gold medal. Although limited because of her race and gender, her strong will relentlessly propelled her forward. 

Wilma Rudolph and her three gold medals. (
Wilma Rudolph and her three gold medals. (

Many people are determined to achieve a goal, but they forget that they need perseverance too. Unlike others, Wilma Rudolph possessed both qualities. She strived to pursue her hopes, dreams, and goals despite many hardships that were thrown her way. No one could ever forget Wilma Rudolph in the 1960 Olympics. She gleamed as the first American woman to earn three gold medals in track and field, but her triumphs were not the factors that made her unforgettable. Rudolph's "...wins were even more amazing because on the day before the 100-meter semifinal event, she stepped in a hole and twisted her ankle. It swelled and became painful, but Rudolph ran anyway, and won all of her events." (Wilma Rudolph. Notable Sports Figures). Wilma Rudolph's ability to endure represented one of her biggest strengths. Despite suffering a twisted and swollen ankle, Rudolph still ran in her events and won them all. Not only did she prevail over physical pain, but she also displayed to others her mental strength. Wilma Rudolph's actions tell us that to achieve something in life, you must truly understand your dreams to overcome all other obstacles. Rudolph never let anything hamper her success. Even though her childhood consisted of numerous difficulties, Rudolph became a victorious woman in both her success in running and generosity to her community: "She was a woman and an African American in a time when fewer opportunities existed for both groups, and she also overcame serious childhood illness and disability to not only walk normally, but win gold medals in national and Olympic competition" ("Wilma Rudolph." Notable Sports Figures). In her childhood years, Rudolph had to cope with illnesses and disability. She also lived during a time when African Americans were considered inferior and woman had considerably lower status than men. However, she ignored all the negative events in her life and relentlessly worked to achieve her dreams. Wilma Rudolph surpassed all other people and eventually arrived at the top of the status pyramid. Rudolph's perseverance not only helped her win races, but it also aided her in society. She defeated childhood illnesses and diseases, learned to walk, and sailed through a period of intense prejudice. 

Picture Book: Wilma Unlimited ( )
Picture Book: Wilma Unlimited ( )

Although Wilma Rudolph became an exceptional athlete, her respectable figure to young ones as a mentor and benefactor brought her more love than other famous sport figures. Out on the track, she was an ambitious young woman, but when she was with the younger generation she became more than just an athlete. After Wilma Rudolph retired from her track and field career, she began to use the attention that she had to shine attention on young ones in need. "Since Rudolph's great joy in life came from working with young people, in 1982 she established the Wilma Rudolph Foundation...a nonprofit organization that trains young and disadvantaged athletes for international competition. In 1991, Rudolph became actively involved in Walking for Wellness, a national physical fitness program designed to get minority children walking for health" (Markland). Wilma Rudolph used her fame as an advantage to help these young people. With that, she formed her greatest legacy, the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a non-profit organization founded with one goal: to give support to underprivileged athletes and to nurture them. It offered free professional coaching in various sports and simultaneously assisted the athletes with academic support. Rudolph was also enthusiastically involved in many other programs to help disabled children, such as Walking for Wellness. She constantly displayed her love of supporting young people. Wilma Rudolph often gave motivational speeches to young ones, telling them to believe in themselves and aim high. Rudolph's personal story inspired other athletes and brought her even more opportunities to support those who suffered as she had. "Vice President Hubert Humphrey invited her to work with him on Operation Champion in 1967. The program was designed to take star athletes from sixteen of the largest city ghettos in the country and give them professional training. Rudolph became one of the track specialists" (Wilma Rudolph. U*X*L Biographies). Rudolph did not scowl upon others because of the color of their skin or their religion, even if they were from "sixteen of the largest city ghettoes in the country." Instead of looking down on amateur athletes, Rudolph was delighted to assist them in their training and guiding them to a better future. Wilma Rudolph was always there for needy kids, for she not only trained them in sports, but she also gave them mental support and stability. She was a teacher, not only an athlete. 

Wilma Rudolph stamp. ( ())
Wilma Rudolph stamp. ( ())

Through her accomplishments and contributions, Wilma Rudolph proved to the world that one did not need money to succeed as long as one maintained a strong will and a strong heart. In her free time, Rudolph often wondered what her purpose in the world was: "When I was going through my transition of being famous, I tried to ask God why was I here? what was my purpose? Surely, it wasn't just to win three gold medals. There has to be more to this life than that" ("Wilma Rudolph Quotes"). Rudolph knew winning three gold medals did not mean she had reached the peak of her achievements, but rather that there was always a more meaningful reward to obtain. Understanding what her real purpose was, Wilma Rudolph became a lovable figure to many children while she fought her way through discrimination. Rudolph's "...homecoming parade in Clarksville was attended by over 40,000 people, and was the first racially integrated event in the history of the town--at her insistence, since she refused to participate in the segregated event that the white town officials originally proposed" (Wilma Rudolph. Notable Sports Figures). While others used their fame to attract even more attention to themselves, Rudolph used her fame to create a better world by changing children's lives and proposing the integration of all races. Her achievements also opened up more opportunities for future women. Even though Rudolph had all the fame she could ever want, that was not her main goal in life. She dedicated herself to supporting those who never had it and to influence future generations. From a disabled child to a brilliant athlete and respected figure in her local community and the world, Wilma Glodean Rudolph was exactly what the French called her: "The Black Pearl."

Works Cited

Markland, Mary E. "Wilma Rudolph." Great Lives From History: African Americans (2010): 153.    

Biography Reference Center. Web. 12 Dec. 2011.

"Wilma Rudolph." Notable Sports Figures. Ed. Dana R. Barnes. Detroit: Gale, 2004.Gale Biography In Context. Web. 7 Dec. 2011.

"Wilma Rudolph." U*X*L Biographies. Detroit: U*X*L, 2003. Gale Student Resources In Context. Web. 11 Dec. 2011

"Wilma Rudolph Quotes." Women's History - Comprehensive Women's History Research Guide. Web. 05 Jan. 2012. .

Page created on 1/14/2012 12:00:00 AM

Last edited 1/14/2012 12:00:00 AM

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Related Links

National Track and Field Hall of Fame - - Wilma Rudolph's Induction in 1974
National Women's Hall of Fame - - Wilma Rudolph's Induction in 1994
U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame - - Wilma Rudolph's Induction in 1983
Tennessee State University - - Wilma Rudolph's Undergraduate Education