Wilma Rudolph: "I Can't Has Never Been in My Vocabulary"


At the 1960 Summer Olympic Games in Rome, Italy, the United States relay team trailed the German team. Star sprinter Wilma Rudolph reached out for the baton from her teammate-and promptly dropped it. With no time to spare, she picked up the baton, her long legs quickly shifting into a scissors-like forward motion. Arms pumping, muscles straining, she edged closer to the German runner. The crowd roared and leapt to their feet as Wilma raced across the finish line-four yards ahead of her opponent.

Wilma Rudolph had just become the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympic games. Personally, she had accomplished something close to a miracle.

A Long, Hard Road

Born June 23, 1940, in rural St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, Wilma was the twentieth in a family of twenty-two children. She once joked, "I had to be fast. Otherwise, there was nothing left to eat on the table."

Wilma weighed just four and a half pounds at birth and was sickly. Her parents worried that she might not live. Her health improved for a short time, but then she caught double pneumonia, followed by scarlet fever and a mild case of polio. The polio caused her left leg to shrink. Doctors told her that she might never walk again.

Wilma's family surrounded her with love and care. They massaged her shrunken leg four times a day. Once a week, Wilma and her mother took the bus to a hospital in Nashville for heat and water therapy.

Wilma's leg slowly improved. When she was eight years old, her leg was fitted with a heavy brace. Wilma was finally able to walk, although her walking was more like hopping. When Wilma was nine, doctors replaced the brace with a high-top shoe. The shoe allowed her to walk more easily, but both the brace and the orthopedic shoe reminded her that something was wrong.

Despite her difficulties, Wilma did not give up." 'I can't' are two words that have never been in my vocabulary," Wilma said years later. "I believe in me more than anything in this world."

Wilma's corrective shoe did not stop her from playing basketball with her brothers. When the bulky shoe felt too awkward, she took it off and played barefoot.

Wilma grew very tall. By the time she was sixteen, she was nearly six feet and weighed less than 100 pounds. Her long arms and legs earned her the nickname "Skeeter" from one coach. ("You're little, you're fast, and you always get in my way," he joked.)

But Wilma's height and the skills she had learned playing basketball with her brothers proved to be beneficial. Wilma made the all-state basketball team during all four years of high school. She also set a Tennessee state scoring record for girls' basketball. In one game, she scored 49 points!

Wilma also competed in local and state track meets. She qualified for the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, where she won a bronze medal in the 400-meter relay.

After graduating from high school, Wilma enrolled at Tennessee State University on a track scholarship. Wilma won all her races for the next three years and became the star of the Tigerbelles track team.

Nobody Came Close

With her classic style and grace, Wilma exploded out of the starting block with raw power and fluid motion. Yet, Wilma's coach talked about her calm temperament. Between races, she even took catnaps. Wilma said once, "Any time I can catch a nap-even for a few minutes-I will."
In many of Wilma's races, the other runners weren't even close to her. In some races, she was so far ahead that she slowed down in the middle of the race to shout encouragement to her teammates.

When she was twenty, Wilma and three of her Tigerbelle teammates went to the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. Wilma's performance in Rome smashed records.

In the 100-meter race, she broke the world record of 11.3 seconds. She won a gold medal in that event and in the 200-meter race, which she finished in 24.0 seconds. As the anchor of the 400-meter relay team, Wilma won her third gold medal and made Olympic history.

Fastest Woman in the World

After the Olympics, everyone was talking about Wilma Rudolph-the fastest woman in the world. When Wilma came home to Clarksville, the town showered her with flowers, a parade, and a banquet.

Wilma continued to compete in track-and-field events until she was twenty-two. Many sports experts believe that if she had continued to compete, she would have accomplished even greater feats. But at that time, track-andfield performers could not legally accept money for their accomplishments in the sport.

After her retirement, Wilma continued to lead an active life. She worked briefly as a track coach at DePauw University in Indiana. She acted as the United States' Goodwill Ambassador to French West Africa. She also hosted a radio show, was a spokesperson for Minute Maid Orange Juice, and served as an executive for a baking company, a bank, and a hospital.

But children were Wilma's special interest. She created the Wilma Rudolph Foundation in the city of Indianapolis to teach underprivileged children how to overcome obstacles and follow their dreams. She considered the foundation to be her greatest accomplishment.

First of Her Kind

Wilma Rudolph was the first of many great African-American female sprinters. She inspired such successors as her friend Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who won Olympic gold for the heptathlon in 1988 and 1992. Rudolph packed much into her fifty-four years of life before she died of brain cancer at age 54 in 1994. As a tribute to her sportsmanship, discipline, and greatness, her mourners draped her casket with the Olympic flag.

In the year of her death, she won the National Women's Hall of Fame award, and a section of Highway 79 in her hometown of Clarksville was renamed in her honor. The following year, a six-story dormitory on the Tennessee State University campus was named the Wilma G. Rudolph Residence Center, and a black marble marker was placed on her grave.

In 1996, a life-sized bronze statue of her was completed and mounted in Clarksville. In 1997, then-Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist proclaimed June 23 as Wilma Rudolph Day in her home state. In 2004, the U.S. Postal Service issued a 23-cent stamp featuring her likeness.