Until a few years ago often it was only famous professional athletes who got the publicity that gave them celebrity status. However, recently more athletes have achieved that rank, particularly track and field competitors. One of the first of these was Olympic champion Wilma Rudolph who triumphed over childhood polio to later be acclaimed as the fastest woman in the world.
Born prematurely in the area of Clarksville, Tennessee in June 1940, Wilma Glodean Rudolph was the 20th child from her father’s two marriages. He was a railroad employee and her mother Blanche was a housekeeper in local homes. Wilma struggled with several childhood illnesses, and then at age five she contracted polio. Though she recovered from the sickness, she suffered loss of strength in her left leg and foot from the polio. Because adequate medical care for black children was lacking in her area, her parents took her 50 miles to Nashville’s Meharry Medical College, for treatment.
For some two years, Wilma and Blanche traveled by bus to Nashville for treatments for her leg, and at home family continued to massage her legs during the week. With these treatments by her family and doctors, Wilma gradually overcame the handicapping conditions, and did learn to walk without a brace or special shoe. Though her initial diagnosis was bleak she had other ideas. “My doctor told me I would never walk again,” she said, “My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”
Rudolph was schooled at home during kindergarten and first grade because of illness but did begin attending a local school by the second grade, then once in high school she competed successfully in track and field, as well as basketball. In her sophomore year she set a new girls’ high school basketball record and earned from a coach the nickname of “Skeeter” (Mosquito) because she moved so fast.
While playing high school basketball, Wilma attracted the attention of the track and field coach from the nearby Tennessee State University, and he invited the fourteen year old Wilma to take part in his summer training program when she attended high school. When she was 16 in 1956 when she attended the American Olympic trials where she qualified to compete in the Olympic Games that in year in Australia. Competing with other TSU students (known as the “Tigerbelles”) they won a bronze medal at the Games. Actually Rudolph was the youngest member of the U.S. Team. Then once home, she made it a goal to compete in the 1960 Games.
In 1958 during her senior year in high school she had her first child Yolanda, just before enrolling in college, where she continued to compete in track. In 1959 at the Pan American Games in Chicago, she won a silver medal in an individual event, and shared a gold medal with her team.
While still a sophomore at Tennessee State, Rudolph took part in the Olympic track and field trials in 1960 where she also set a world record in one event, and qualified to compete in the 1960 Games in Rome.
Once there Rudolph became the first American woman to win a gold medal to succeed a previous record set by a woman in the 1936 Games. Another race win was accomplished with a personal goal—as a tribute to Jesse Owens who had been the star of the 1936 Olympics. That celebrated athlete had been an inspiration to Rudolph.
Also in Rome she competed in three events, winning a gold medal for each, and the “Fastest Woman in the World” title came from this time. The Italians dubbed her “The Black Gazelle,” and the French called her “The Black Pearl.” Then along with fellow American Olympic athletes, Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) and Rafer Johnson, she attracted international television attention and this launched her celebrity. This was done, according to one source, “..with praises for her athletic accomplishments as well as her feminine beauty and poise.”
Upon her return to Tennessee, Wilma was feted by her home town with a “Welcome Wilma Day” in October, 1960. The festivities were the first fully integrated event in the city’s history—something Wilma insisted on. Her Olympic wins made Rudolph an internationally famous personality and she competed in other games. Also, she also appeared in a documentary film about her, issued by the U.S. Information Agency, and also was a guest on the Ed Sullivan television show.
A brief marriage to a fellow track runner in 1961 ended in a 1963 divorce.
Wilma graduated with a college degree in education in 1963, her studies made possible by a work study scholarship program, on campus. She retired from running events when she was twenty-two, saying that she wanted to leave at the height of her athletic career, and while still at her best. She declined to participate in the 1964 Olympics by saying, “If I won two gold medals, there would be something lacking. I’ll stick with the glory I’ve already won like Jesse Owens did in 1936.”
After her graduation she traveled for the U.S. State Department to West Africa, where she appeared on the media, and visited sporting events and schools.
Then in May, 1963 she participated in a civil rights protest in her hometown seeking the desegregation of a local venue, and total integration of all public facilities was soon announced. At this time she married her high school sweetheart, the father of her first child, and they would have three more children before their later divorce.
To support herself, Wilma taught school and coached, and then published her autobiography in 1977. The book served as the basis of more publications and several films. Later she hosted an Indianapolis television show, and as a commentator for a national network, during the 1984 Summer Olympics.
In July, 1994 Rudolph was diagnosed with cancer and died in November of that year, at her home in a Nashville suburb.
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.