Rudolph, Wilma Glodean

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RUDOLPH, Wilma Glodean

(b. 23 June 1940 in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee; d. 12 November 1994 in Brentwood, Tennessee), the "fastest woman in the world" and the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics.

Born into poverty in 1940 in the racially segregated South, Rudolph's opportunities seemed limited. She was the twentieth of twenty-two children of her father's first and second marriages. Her father, Ed Rudolph, was a railroad porter, and her mother, Blanche (Pettus) Rudolph, was a domestic. Their home in Clarksville, Tennessee, had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing. Rudolph's life was a struggle from birth. Born two months premature, she weighed only four and a half pounds. By age four she had contracted measles, mumps, chicken pox, pneumonia, scarlet fever, and polio. Polio left her with a crooked left leg and a foot that turned inward.

Defying all odds, Rudolph began her stellar athletic career at age twelve. Finally free of the leg brace she had worn for support after her bout with polio, she participated in school sports. By the time she was in high school Rudolph was winning every race she entered, yet she knew she needed expert training. At the end of her sophomore year she had been selected to compete against the top runners in the South at a track meet in Tuskegee, Alabama. She expected to win, but to her horror she lost every race, which caused her to conclude she needed intensive training to reach the competitive level she envisioned for herself.

That summer Rudolph attended coach Ed Temple's high school girls' track program at Tennessee State College. The team trained five days a week and ran twenty miles a day. The goal was for the team to win the junior division championship at the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national meet in Philadelphia. At the end of the summer Rudolph and the team were the national junior champions. Rudolph won the 75-meter and 100-meter races and the 400-meter relay. That day she competed in nine races and won all of them—yet there was no mention of these achievements in the newspapers because at the time the public had little interest in women's track and field events. Rudolph recalled, "I won nine races that day, and our team won the junior title, and none of us even thought about looking in the sports pages … because we knew … nobody would bother to write it up." At that meet she had her photo taken with Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the first African-American player in major league baseball, who became her hero and inspiration.

Under Temple's coaching and through her hard work, Rudolph qualified at age sixteen to become the youngest member of the 1956 U.S. Olympic women's track and field team. At the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, she lost in the 200-meter race but won a bronze medal as part of the 400-meter relay team. She dedicated herself to doing even better at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

Rudolph's career was almost sidetracked when she became pregnant in fall 1957, her senior year in high school. So Rudolph could attend college, her family offered to raise her daughter while she pursued her academic and athletic careers. In 1958 Rudolph graduated from high school and received a full scholarship to attend Tennessee State University as a member of Coach Temple's Tigerbelles track team. Tennessee State was one of the few schools that offered women's athletic scholarships prior to the passage of Title IX in 1972.

At the AAU national meet in Corpus Christi, Texas, just before the 1960 Olympic trials, Rudolph set a world record, 22.9 seconds in the 200-meter race; the record stood for eight years. At the Olympic trials in Emporia, Kansas, she easily qualified in three events, the 100-and 200-meter races and the 400-meter relay. To her delight, Temple was named coach of the 1960 U.S. women's Olympic team.

At five feet, eleven inches tall and weighing 132 pounds, Rudolph was a slim and graceful sprinter with amazing speed. At the 1960 Rome Olympics she won the 100-meter race in a world record time, 11 seconds; however, because of a strong following wind, the record remained unofficial. She set an Olympic record in the opening heat of the 200-meter race with a time of 23.2 seconds and went on to win the gold medal with a time of 24.0 seconds. In the 400-meter relay, despite a poor baton pass, she caught up with and passed the German runner to take the gold. The 44.5-second time was one-tenth of a second over the teams' semifinal time of 44.4 seconds, a world record. Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics and the most celebrated female athlete in the world. The Italian press dubbed her La Perla Nera (the black pearl), and the French press called her La Gazelle Noire (the black gazelle).

After the Olympics the team had an audience with Pope John XXIII, then competed in the British Empire Games in London. Rudolph won the two events in which she competed, the 100-meter race and the 400-meter relay. The U.S. Olympic Committee arranged for Rudolph and three of her teammates to tour several European cities. People everywhere came out to see her. Sports Illustrated reported that mounted police had to hold back the crowds in Cologne, Germany.

When Rudolph returned to the United States, her hometown of Clarksville welcomed her with a victory parade and banquet. The occasion was especially notable because it was the first integrated event in the town's history. Nashville also held a parade in her honor. In Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley honored her by giving her the keys to the city, an event repeated in other cities throughout the United States. President John F. Kennedy invited Rudolph and her parents to the White House, and she was a guest on the Ed Sullivan Show.

In 1962 Rudolph retired from track and field, explaining she wanted to be remembered at her best. That year she was divorced from her first husband, William Ward, whom she had married in 1961. In 1963 she graduated from Tennessee State University with a degree in elementary education and in July married her high school boyfriend, Robert Eldridge. Their family grew to include four children (the couple divorced in 1981).

Rudolph became a celebrity in the wake of her spectacular performances at the 1960 Olympic Games. In 1963 the U.S. State Department asked her to be a goodwill ambassador to the Friendship Games in Senegal. A devoted Baptist, she joined evangelist Billy Graham's Baptist Christian Athletes tour in Japan. Over the years Rudolph held various teaching positions. She dedicated her life to helping others and gave selflessly of her time to various community endeavors. In 1967 Vice President Hubert Humphrey asked her to be part of Operation Champion, a government athletic program designed to aid underprivileged children in sixteen ghetto communities. In 1982 she founded the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes amateur athletics.

Rudolph received many honors. In 1960 European sportswriters voted her Sportswoman of the Year, and both United Press International and the Associated Press named her Female Athlete of the Year. In 1961 she received the James E. Sullivan Award for the top amateur athlete, and in 1962 the Babe Zaharias Award. In 1987 she became the first female to be given the NCAA Silver Anniversary Award, and in 1993 President William J. Clinton presented her with a National Sports Award.

Rudolph was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1973, the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974, the Afro-American International Hall of Fame in 1980, the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983, and the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1994. Following her death at age fifty-four from a brain tumor, her alma mater, Tennessee State University, established the Wilma Rudolph Residence Center in her honor. She is buried at Edgefield Missionary Baptist Church in Clarksville.

Rudolph overcame seemingly insurmountable obstacles, including poverty, racism, sexism, and a crippling bout with polio, to achieve athletic excellence. Her life serves as a model of courage and dedication for all Americans and proof of the veracity of the American dream.

A collection of news clippings documenting Rudolph's achievements, photographs, and her Tigerbelle trophies are in the Special Collections Department of the Tennessee State University Library. Rudolph's autobiography, written with Martin Ralbovsky, is Wilma (1977). Other good sources for information about her life and career are Tom Biracree, Wilma Rudolph (1988); Michael Davis, Black American Women in Olympic Track and Field (1992); and Anne Janette Johnson, Great Women in Sports (1996). Helpful articles include Frank Litsky, "Wilma Rudolph," New York Times(13 Nov. 1994), and Susan Reed, "Born to Win," People Weekly (28 Nov. 1994). An obituary is in the New York Times (13 Nov. 1994).

Gai Ingham Berlage