Wilma Rudolph

by Nancy Nickerson

Wilma Rudolph
GPA Photo Archive via Wikicommons CC BY SA 1.0 [Public Domain]

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, Tennessee. 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.

Page created on 7/11/2015 4:06:50 PM

Last edited 5/17/2024 2:10:21 PM

The beliefs, viewpoints and opinions expressed in this hero submission on the website are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, viewpoints and opinions of The MY HERO Project and its staff.

Related Links

Bio on - As a child, Wilma Rudolph overcame polio to become an Olympic sprint champion. This made her an American icon and a role model.

Extra Info

Caltrise Smith from Gretna, La., wrote: Wilma Rudolph, once known as the sickliest child in Clarksville, Tennessee, became one of the fastest women in the world. She overcame polio as a child, and at age twenty became the first American women to win three gold medals at a single Olympics. When Wilma returned home her family was waiting for her, and so was all of Clarksville. The huge parade and banquet held in her honor were the first events in the town's history to include both blacks and whites.

When Wilma was a child, in the 1940s, she contracted polio, also known as infantile paralysis. It was the world's most dreaded disease. With great bravery and the help of her family, Wilma fought and won her battle against polio. A cure for polio was not found until 1955. By then, it had killed or crippled 357,000 Americans, mostly children, only 50,000 fewer than the number of Americans who had died in W. W. II.

After Wilma retired from her career as a runner in 1962, she became a second grade teacher and a high school coach. She remained a much-admired celebrity, but to prove that there was more to her than just running, she started a company called Wilma Unlimited. This gave her opportuniies to travel, lecture and support causes she believed in. Later she founded the non-profit Wilma Rudolph Foundation to nurture young athletes and to teach them that they, too, can succeed despite all odds against them. The story of all she overcame in order to win at the Olympics has inspired thousands of young athletes, especially women and my self. Wilma Rudolph died in 1994. THAT'S WHY I THINK SHE'S A HERO! Michelle Goode from North Philadelphia, Penn., wrote:

"Wilma Rudolph is my hero because she was a great African American track star, and I love to run. I know that academics will get me somewhere in life, and track is the sport that I believe also will help me accomplish my goals. I've watched movies of Wilma Rudolph and read books about her, and I hope someday to be like her. I would like to have her speed and a loving family to give me confidence, so I too can have the feeling that you get after you win."

Dana from Stony Creek, Conn., wrote:

"Wilma is my hero because she was very PERSISTENT! When she was very young, she had polio; back then, it was a hard thing to cure. The doctors said that she would never walk again. She had two braces on her legs and walked with canes, but she worked hard and one day in church she stood up and walked down the aisle. That, to me, is AMAZING!! She really did something and ACHIEVED!!!!!!!. Later on in her life she became a basketball player and won a gold medal in the Olympics in track, and that is why Wilma Rudolph is my hero"

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