Rudolph, Wilma (1940–1994)

views updated

Rudolph, Wilma (1940–1994)

African-American sprinter who grew up with doctors debating whether or not she would ever walk unassisted and went on to become a legendary track star as the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics. Name variations: (nickname) Skeeter. Born Wilma Glodean Rudolph on June 23, 1940, in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee; died on November 12, 1994, at her home in Brentwood, Tennessee, of brain cancer; daughter of Eddie Rudolph and Blanche Rudolph; Tennessee State University, B.A., 1963; married William Ward, on October 14, 1961 (divorced 1962); married Robert Eldrige, in 1963 (divorced 1976); children: (with Eldrige) Yolanda (b. 1958), Djauna (b. 1964), Robert (b. 1965), and Xurry (b. 1971).


Associated Press' Athlete of the Year Award (1960, 1961); Helms World Trophy for the North American Continent (1960); Los Angeles Times award (1960); Mademoiselle award (1960); The New York Times selection as one of the ten most outstanding women in U.S. (1960); European Sportswriters' Association award for Most Outstanding Athlete of the Year (1960); Sports Magazine award (1960); National Newspaper Publishers Association's award (1960); Babe Didrickson Zaharias Trophy for Outstanding Female Athlete in U.S. (1960); James E. Sullivan Award as the nation's outstanding amateur athlete (1961); Women's Sports Foundation's America's Greatest Women Athletes' award (1984); National Collegiate Athletic Association's Silver Anniversary Award (even though she competed before the NCAA sponsored women's championships in any sport, 1990); first National Sports Award (presented by President Clinton, 1993); enshrinement in the Black Sports Hall of Fame (1973), National Track and Field Hall of Fame (1974), and U.S. Olympics Hall of Fame (1978); Tennessee State University named an indoor track in her honor (1988), and the U.S. Olympics Committee established the Wilma Rudolph Scholarship Fund after her death (1994).

Became youngest member of U.S. women's track-and-field team (1956); competed in the Olympics and won four medals (1956, 1960); retired (1962), becoming a teacher and speaker.

Records (in high-school basketball and women's Negro league):

highest individual point total for one game, 53 (1956); member of first team to score 100 points in a game (1957); highest individual, season point total, 803 in 25 games (1957); member, championship team (1957).

Records (Olympic):

bronze medal in 400-meter relay (1956); gold medal in 100 meter, 11.0 (1960); gold medal in 200 meter, 24.0 (1960); gold medal in 400-meter relay, 44.5 (1960); was the first American woman to win three gold medals at one Olympics (1960).

Records (world):

60-yard dash, 6.8 (1961); 70-yard dash, 7.8 (1961); 100 meters, 11.2 (1961); 200 meters, 22.4 (1959); 4×100 relay (anchor), 44.4 (1960).

By the start of the 4×100 relay at the Rome Olympics in 1960, 20-year-old Wilma Rudolph had already won two individual-event gold medals, but her American teammates Martha Hudson , Lucinda Williams and Barbara Jones had been shut out. U.S. women's track coach Ed Temple would later recall that Rudolph's greatest desire was a medal for her fellow runners, all of whom, like Rudolph, attended Tennessee State. After the first three legs of the race, the U.S. team was out front, but the final baton hand-off to Rudolph took two tries and erased their lead. It didn't matter. The 6'1", long-striding sprinter not only made up the difference, but was alone at the finish line. The U.S. women's team won its first Olympic gold medal in the relay, and Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics.

The sixth of Eddie and Blanche Rudolph 's eight children, Wilma Rudolph was born prematurely in 1940 after her mother had a fall; her parents were afraid that their 4.5-pound newborn would not make it through the first night. Eddie had a number of children from a previous marriage, and in her autobiography Rudolph counted herself as number 20 of 22. Several years of sickness ensued. Frail and slender, Rudolph endured a bout of double pneumonia at age four which was followed immediately by scarlet fever; more than once she was expected to die. "All I can remember," she would later write, "is being ill and bedridden."

Soon after her birth, the family moved from St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, to a town four miles down the road—Clarksville: population approximately 11,000 and located 43 miles from Nashville. Her mother, a devout church-going Baptist, worked as a domestic, and her father, who was less religious but a strict disciplinarian, was a porter and handyman. Aided by the love and support of her family, and the encouragement of the town's black doctor, Wilma learned to fight against her illnesses. She would later recall a turning point which occurred while she was lying in bed suffering through yet another fever: a conscious decision to stop succumbing to the aches and the urge to drift away. "I think I started acquiring a competitive spirit right then and there," she wrote, "a spirit that would make me successful in sports later on. I was mad, and I was going to beat these illnesses no matter what." Rudolph's competitive will to win would one day be publicly tested in the ultimate arena of amateur athletics. But first she needed to summon the will to walk.

In addition to her other illnesses, a mild form of polio resulted in a crooked and partially paralyzed left leg, with the foot turned inward. As doctors debated whether or not she would ever walk, Rudolph began six years of physical therapy. Two African-American doctors at Meharry Medical College in Nashville fitted her leg with a corrective metal brace, then prescribed regular massage and heat treatments. Once a week for several years, on her mother's day off, Blanche and Wilma rode together in the back of the bus to Nashville. In between trips, her mother and siblings massaged her leg several times a day. "With all the love and care my family gave me," she wrote, "I couldn't help but get better."

Indeed, with treatment she made progress, at first walking by hopping on one leg and then working hard to conceal her brace-aided limp. In private, she would sneak out of the brace, check for signs of improvement, and little by little attempt to use the bad leg. After five years of therapy, she shocked her parents and doctors by walking unassisted. At age 9½, she took the brace off in public, and by the time she was 12 the device went back to Nashville. Once not expected to walk, Rudolph was playing basketball in her bare feet. She was finally free and determined to fit in. Recalling playmates who did not want her on their team, she wrote: "All of my young life I would say to myself, 'One day I'm going to be somebody very special.'"

Racial inequality, however, was more difficult to overcome. During Rudolph's youth, the law of the land and the guiding tenet of racial relations was "separate but equal," but, especially in the South, blacks were not equal. For instance, white bankers denied credit to blacks, and in Clarksville—which was 75% white and segregated—the town's largest employer, a tire company, first banned black employees and later offered them only the poorest jobs. Two of Rudolph's brothers who served in black units during World War II had to ride in the back of the bus and drink from separate water fountains on their way home. When Rudolph and her mother arrived in Nashville for her treatments, it did not matter if they were hungry; the bus-depot restaurant did not serve blacks. One of the first dates carved into Maya Lin 's civil-rights memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, is December 1, 1955. On that day, Wilma Rudolph was already 15 years old when Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, initiating the Montgomery bus boycott and the civil-rights movement. But in the late '40s and early '50s, caught between the pincers of poverty and racism, her parents and teachers saw little choice but to quietly accept the world as it was. Rudolph heeded their message to stay out of trouble while channeling her rage, vowing "to never serve coffee to white ladies in bed on Saturday mornings." The all-black schools Rudolph would attend skirted the issues, promoting black heroes but avoiding the subject of bigotry. Although the winds of change were gathering, they were a long way from Clarksville.

By the time Rudolph was a junior at Burt High School, she had become, of all things, a basketball star. High-school coach Clinton Gray nicknamed her "Skeeter" because she was "little, fast and always in the way, like a mosquito." Gray made Rudolph pay her dues, keeping her on the bench during her freshman year. Despite continuing hurdles, like the social pressures to avoid sport and exercise (many thought such activities unwomanly), Rudolph kept practicing with anyone she could. She finally starred as a sophomore, in one game scoring a record 53 points.

Gray also coached Burt's rag-tag track team, which was mostly an excuse to keep the girls in shape for basketball during the off-season. When he drove them to meets in his nine-passenger DeSoto wagon, his wife packed the meals because they could not get served at whites-only restaurants. To everyone's surprise, including her own, Rudolph excelled on the track. One season she ran 20 different races and won them all. Her confidence developed and her personality blossomed. As Burt High's fastest runner, she was buoyant and cocky when she stepped up to the starting line in Tuskegee, Alabama, at her first major meet away from home, but she failed to lead the way over a single finish line. Better-trained competitors with less raw talent used technique and strategy to beat her in the first few races. She came home with her pride shattered and, demoralized, eventually just gave up.

But the defeat gnawed at her. She sulked and drifted, until at her lowest point she found her familiar resolve. Rudolph decided to stop relying on natural ability, to train hard daily, to be honest with herself, and to never again give up. Ultimately, she would look back on her ability to learn from failure, and her decision to run again after the crushing defeat in Tuskegee, as a major turning point and lifelong guiding lesson.

Rudolph's first love was still basketball, and it was thanks to her playing that she was spotted by Edward Temple. A part-time women's basketball referee, Temple traveled the state scouting and recruiting prospects for his day job as coach of Tennessee State University's women's track team. His legendary team of Tigerbelles—tigers on the track, Southern belles off—eventually produced 40 female Olympians and 14 American medals during his 44 years as a coach. Temple invited Rudolph, still a high-school sophomore, to attend a summer camp for track. The youngest member there, she improved dramatically under Temple's demanding training and tutelage. She also met a second guiding influence, two-time Olympian Mae Faggs —the senior member and matriarch of the Tigerbelles—who generously encouraged and assisted Rudolph.

If you can pick yourself up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion.

—Wilma Rudolph

Jackie Robinson, the first black ballplayer to play in the major leagues, was also an inspiration. Rudolph met him when he attended a meet in Philadelphia with a Brooklyn Dodgers teammate, and Robinson took the time to talk to a few of the competitors. He encouraged her to keep running. "For the first time in my life," she later noted, "I had a black person I could look up to as a real hero." Role models in her sport, particularly women, were scarce. Black women had broken the barrier, with Alice Coachman winning a gold medal in 1948 in the long jump, but there was no television coverage and women received little press. The women's results for the AAU Nationals in Seattle and the U.S. Olympic Trials, which Rudolph was to attend, would not be published in the papers.

Before her team arrived in Seattle, she had a good deal to learn. In deference to the senior members of the team, she had been holding back. Mae worked to convince her to go all-out, to run to beat everyone, so as to ultimately help the team by running as an individual. Rudolph proved to be a good student. At the 100-meter finals, she tied Faggs in a dead-heat finish, insuring the two of them a slot on the Olympic team. After Greyhound buses to Nashville, Coach Gray's DeSoto, and Coach Temple's caravans, the 16-year-old, 89-pound Rudolph boarded a plane to Los Angeles, then went on to Hawaii and the Fiji Islands before finally arriving in Melbourne, Australia, for the 1956 Olympic games.

In Australia, far away from her coach and family, she suffered an early blow: elimination in the semifinals of the 200-meter heats. Nevertheless, the Melbourne Games were a learning experience. At the opening ceremonies, Rudolph had met Betty Cuthbert , Australia's best runner, who went on to become the star of the games. Watching Cuthbert claim three gold medals helped lift Rudolph out of her 200-meter elimination blues. Encouraged to refocus, she went all-out during the 4×100 relay. She ran in the third position on a team that included Mae Faggs and helped the U.S. win a bronze medal.

The Melbourne games previewed a coming sea change in track and field, an approaching era of domination by the U.S. women's track and field team. The '56 team planted the seeds for a remarkable series of upcoming accomplishments, especially by black women. Mildred McDaniel won a gold medal in the high jump, Willye White performed in the first of a record five Olympics for the U.S. team, and Wilma Rudolph made her Olympic debut. As well, four African-Americans teamed up to run in the relay finals for the first time. With a bronze medal hanging around her neck and the Burt High School Band belting out the national anthem, Rudolph came home the hero of Clarksville to finish her junior year.

Back in school, she excelled in basketball, averaging 35 points a game on the state championship team, and in track. Her romance with Robert Eldrige, a friend since the second grade who became the star of the football and track teams, turned serious. During a routine physical, Rudolph discovered that she was four months' pregnant, and her father forbade future contact with Robert. The unwed Rudolph was seven months' pregnant when she walked up to accept her high-school diploma. Her daughter Yolanda was born in July 1958.

After the pregnancy, Rudolph's weight rose to 129 pounds. To the new mother and the people around her it looked as if her career might end as quickly as it started. Although she had fallen from grace in Clarksville, Rudolph had both a strong record of fighting against the odds and the support of Coach Temple and her family. With sports scholarships not available to women (until 1968), she started college by joining a work-aid program to cover tuition and board, while her older sister Yvonne cared for the infant Yolanda. Rudolph converted her extra weight to muscle, trained hard, and ran well at Tennessee State. At the Nationals in Corpus Christi, she posted a 22.9 in the 200 meters. Rudolph had her first world record and a return ticket for the summer Olympics.

She arrived in Italy during 1960 to find the heat and humidity of Rome exactly like that of her Tennessee training grounds. The coach of the U.S. women's team that year was Ed Temple, and no one knew her better. Motivated by the memory of defeat, Rudolph was ready, and the world was, literally, watching: the Olympics were being televised for the first time. Eurovision transmitted live to 21 European countries. In the U.S., CBS paid $660,000 for the rights to fly film from Rome. In the stands, there were more than four times as many fans as the entire population of Clarksville watching Rudolph each day when she entered the 100,000-seat-capacity Stadio Olympico. The Italians called her the Black Gazelle, because of her long legs and graceful style. Fans would chant, "Vil-ma Vilma," each time she ran.

On the final day of practice, Rudolph ran through sprinklers in a practice field to cool off and stepped in a hole which twisted her ankle. The swelling and discoloration looked disastrous, but she was lucky to have a full day to recuperate—with the ankle taped, iced and elevated—before the preliminaries for her first event, the 100 meter. It would be five days before she would have to truly test the ankle, in the turns on the 200-meter course and in the 4×100 relay.

No one knew it at the time, but the winner of all three events was pretty much predetermined when Rudolph stepped out of bed the following morning and her ankle, though hurting, held fast under her full weight. Eight years after shipping her leg brace back to the Nashville hospital, Rudolph won all there was to win in Rome.

Thriving on the energy in the arena, she prepared methodically for her first event. Unfazed by the pressure, she sometimes slept on the trainer's table between heats. After tying the world record of 11.3 in the semifinals, she took the 100-meter gold medal in 11.0 seconds, finishing nearly six meters ahead of the second-place runner, Dorothy Hyman of Great Britain. Next she won the 200-meter sprint in 24.0, after running an Olympic record of 23.2 in her opening heat. Finally, after setting a world record of 44.4 in the semifinals, Ed Temple's Tigerbelles won the 4x100-meter relay with a time of 44.5—despite the poor baton pass. Rudolph's six-foot stature, confidence, and story of endurance made her larger than life. The world was fascinated by her grace on the track, astonished by her success, and enthralled by her elegance. A sparkling personality and broad smile further endeared her to fans. She and Cassius Clay—the boxing gold-medal winner in Rome who later changed his name to Muhammad Ali—became fast friends. Together, smiling and confident, they stood as bright young symbols of a changing America.

But while Rudolph won three medals and fame, her victories brought no fortune. The 1960 Olympics were part of a now bygone, strictly amateur, era. Endorsement contracts, training stipends, and appearance fees did not exist. Rudolph and her teammates gave Americans, especially black Americans, hope and inspiration while helping to pave the way for a professional circuit. Female athletes would eventually earn million-dollar contracts for wearing a particular brand of shoes, but pioneers like Rudolph received no direct monetary reward, and had little opportunity to financially exploit their sudden fame.

Rudolph was a superstar, nevertheless, and her life changed dramatically. Immediately after the Olympics, Temple took the team on a tour of London, Athens, Amsterdam, Cologne, Frankfurt, and Berlin. Pope John XXIII granted the team an audience. While Temple watched over the whole team, Rudolph traveled without a manager or an agent. But she had an innate ability to respond to her fans through all the banquets, parades, and appearances, and never tired of signing autographs. When she finally returned home to Clarksville, to a parade, a carnival, and a dinner held in her honor, she used her power to influence change by threatening to boycott the parade unless it was desegregated. By standing tall, she brought the town together in celebration.

Rudolph returned to college, earned a bachelor's degree in education, and continued to run. The first child in her family to graduate from college, she was also the first woman invited to several prestigious men's track and field meets, including the Melrose Games, the New York Athletic Club Meets, and the L.A. Times Games. After a meet in Washington, D.C., she met with President John F. Kennedy. In 1960, she married William Ward, but they divorced the following year; the marriage is not discussed in her autobiography. She retired from the track in 1962: "Because I couldn't top what I did.… I'll be remembered for when I was at my best." In 1963, she traveled on two final goodwill tours and came back to Clarksville to marry her childhood friend and the father of her first child, Robert Eldrige. Rudolph took a job teaching second grade while coaching high-school basketball and track in Tennessee, for $400 a month. But after running in stadiums throughout the world, she could not settle down back home, where she was making little money and felt stagnated as a teacher. With little call in the South for her services, she accepted a position as a director of a community center in Indianapolis for $600 a month. Still somewhat unfulfilled in Indiana, she moved on to work for the Jobs Corps in Poland Springs, Maine. A year later, in 1967, at the request of Vice President Hubert Humphrey, she went to work for Operation Champ, the athletic outreach program, in Detroit. Rudolph also taught at a Detroit high school which was located in what would be the center of the worst Detroit rioting in 1968. At the time, the civil-rights movement was in full swing and racial tensions soared in America. Rioting broke out in the ghettos of Newark, Los Angeles, Detroit and other American cities. Rudolph left Detroit in 1968 on the day that civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. In the bus station in Nashville, as she waited with her family to transfer to Clarksville, her children were spat on by a white man who was later arrested by the police.

This proved to be a difficult time for Rudolph, who had tired of serving as a figurehead and having her celebrity exploited for little gain. Some of her jobs were mundane and often unproductive. There was financial stress, and at one point she had tax problems. After having a total of four children together, she and her husband divorced in 1976. The greatest female athlete of her time watched from the sidelines as her world records fell. She sold some of her medals. Cassius Clay, partly in sympathy for the black power movement and in protest of the Vietnam War, had thrown his gold medal into a river.

The difficult years, however, did not diminish Rudolph's spirit. She spent the rest of her life working officially and unofficially as a teacher and role model, and at times holding simultaneous positions, for the next 25 years. She served as a movie-studio representative; a network radio co-host; an administrative analyst for UCLA; an executive for a Nashville bank, a Nashville hospital and an Indianapolis baking company; a representative for Minute Maid orange juice; a coach at Depauw University in Greencastle, Indiana; and president of the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to teaching youngsters that they could overcome obstacles, just as she had. Finally, she formed her own company, based in Indiana, and became a full-time motivational speaker. Here, she was at her best and most enjoyed working with children.

Despite her retirement from the sport, Rudolph never totally left the track. Temple talked to her once a month, and she often came back to help with his young runners. Olympic greats—such as Evelyn Ashford and Jackie Joyner-Kersee —describe Rudolph as an idol, as someone who was always willing to listen and provide encouragement. Knowing what it had been like to be alone as a teenager in Melbourne and to have been too poor to bring anyone in her family to Rome, she helped start a trust fund for families of athletes going to Seoul in 1984.

On November 12, 1994, Wilma Rudolph died of brain cancer at her home in Brentwood, Tennessee. At her funeral, the Olympic flag draped her casket. An estimated 4,000 mourners paid their respects. They spoke of her accomplishments on the track, her abiding commitment to the Olympic movement, and her work with children. Her success on the track changed the sport and helped change the country. Rudolph joins Jesse Owens and other sports legends whenever stories are told about Olympic pioneers, the civil-rights movement, and profiles in courage. "Whenever I was down," wrote Florence Griffith Joyner , "I thought how dedicated Wilma was to overcome the obstacles. That motivated me to push harder.… She not only taught me how to sprint but how to go the distance in life." Said Benita Fitzgerald-Brown , 1984 Olympic champion in the hurdles, "She showed it was OK for a woman to be powerful and black and beautiful."


Biracree, Tom. American Woman of Achievement: Wilma Rudolph. NY: Chelsea House, 1988.

Guttman, Allen. The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1984.

Jacobs, Linda. Wilma Rudolph: Run for Glory. St. Paul, MN: EMC, 1975.

Joyner, Florence. "Florence Joyner Pays Tribute to the late Wilma Rudolph," in Jet Magazine. December 2, 1994, p. 51.

Litsky, Frank. "Wilma Rudolph, Star of 1960 Olympics, Dies at 54," in The New York Times. November 13, 1994, p. 53.

Mallon, Bill, and Ian Buchanan. Quest for Gold: Encyclopedia of American Olympians. NY: Leisure Press, 1984.

Moritz, Charles. Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1961.

Page, James A. Black Olympian Medalists. Boulder, CO: Libraries Unlimited, 1991.

Rhoden, William C. "The End of a Winding Road," in The New York Times. November 19, 1994, Sports Section, p. 33.

Rudolph, Wilma. Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph. NY: Signet, 1977.

Smith, Jessie Carney. Notable Black American Women. Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1992.

U.S. Bureau of the Census. Sixteenth Census of U.S.: 1940. Vol. 2, Part 6. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1942.

——. U.S. Census of the Population: 1960. Vol. 1, Part 44, Tennessee. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Commerce, 1963.

Wolfe, Alexander, and Richard Obrien. "Fast Train From Clarksville," in Sports Illustrated. November 28, 1994, p. 13.

personal interviews:

Charlene (Clifton) Rudolph of Brentwood, Tennessee, and Edward Temple of Nashville, Tennessee.

related media:

"Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph" (98 min. television movie), starring Cicely Tyson and Shirley Jo Finney as Wilma, directed by Bud Greenspan, NBC, 1977.

Jesse T. Raiford , President of Raiford Communications, Inc., New York, New York