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.
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
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."
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
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
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
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
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
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