WILMA GOLDEAN RUDOLPH
(June 23, 1940 – November 12, 1994)
She is well known as THE FIRST AMERICAN WOMAN TO WIN THREE GOLD MEDALS in track and field during a single Olympic Games. A track and field champion, she elevated women’s track to a major presence in the United States. As a member of the black community, she is also regarded as a civil rights and women’s rights pioneer. Along with other 1960 Olympic athletes such as Cassius Clay, who later became Muhammad Ali, Rudolph became an international star due to the first international television coverage of the Olympics that year.
The powerful sprinter emerged from the 1960 Rome Olympics as “THE TORNADO, THE FASTEST WOMAN ON EARTH “. The Italians nicknamed her LA GAZZELLA NEGRA (“The Black Gazelle”); to the French she was LA PERLE NOIRE (“The Black Pearl”). Wilma is one of the most famous Tennessee State University Tigerbelles, the name of the TSU women’s track and field program.
Wilma was born in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee in 1940. She was a premature birth child and weighed very little. Due to her early birth Wilma suffered many illness including pneumonia and scarlet fever. She also contracted through her immune system was weak polio, which caused her at the age of 6 to start wearing a brace to assit her mobility. Her family traveled regularly from Clarksville, to Meharry Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee for treatments for her twisted leg
n 1953, 12-year-old Wilma which always had the dream of being able to walk and join other kids in a natural way of sport activities finally was able to have the brace removed. The eldest sister of Wilma was a athlete she played basketball. Wilma looked up to her and wanted to be as good as her sister was. While attending high school, Wilma joined the basketball team. While playing she was spotted by Tennessee State track and field coach Ed Temple. While attending Burt High School, Wilma became a basketball star setting state records for scoring and leading her team to the state championship. She also joined Temple’s summer program at Tennessee State and trained regularly and raced with his Tigerbelles for two years. By the time she was 16, she earned a place on the U.S. Olympic track and field team and came home from the 1956 Melbourne Games with an Olympic bronze medal in the 4×100 m relay. Wilma also won the silver in the 100 m. The same year she won the AAU 100 m title and defended it for four consecutive years. During her career, she also won three AAU indoor titles.
In the 1960’s Summer Olympics in Rome WILMA RUDOLPH won three Olympic titles: in the 100 m, 200 m and 4×100 m relay. As the temperature climbed toward 110 °F (43 °C), 80,000 spectators jammed the Stadio Olimpico. Wilma ran the 100-meter dash in an impressive 11 seconds flat. However the time was not credited as a world record, because it was wind-aided as they stated.
Wilma also won the 200-meter dash in 23.2 seconds, a new Olympic record. After these wins, she was being hailed throughout the world as “the fastest woman in history”. Finally, on September 11, 1960, she combined with Tennessee State teammates Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams and Barbara Jones to win the 400-meter relay in 44.5 seconds, setting a world record Wilma had her own personal reason to hope for victory during that year which was to pay tribute to Jesse Owens, the celebrated American athlete who had been her inspiration, also the star of the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Berlin, Germany.
Following post-games European tour by the American team Wilma returned home to Clarksville. At her wishes, her homecoming parade and banquet were the first fully integrated municipal events in the city’s history.
Rudolph retired from track competition in 1962 at age 22 after winning two races at a U.S.–Soviet meet.
After retiring from her athletic career, Wilma worked as a teacher at Cobb Elementary School teaching 2nd grade , coaching track at Burt High School, and became a sports commentator on national television. Rudolph was married twice. On October 14, 1961, she married Willie Ward, a track star at North Carolina College at Durham, only to divorce him 17 months later. In summer 1963 she married her high school sweetheart Robert Eldridge, with whom she already had a daughter born in 1958.They had four children, in 1958 Yolanda , 1964 Djuanna , 1965 Robert Jr. and 1971 Xurry. Wilma had difficulties in her relationship again and divorced Eldridge after 17 years of marriage, and returned to Indianapolis where she raised her children and hosted a local TV show.
July 1994, shortly after her mother’s death, Rudolph was diagnosed with a brain tumor. On November 12, 1994, at age 54, she died of cancer in her home in Nashville.Wilma also had throat cancer. She was interred at Edgefield Missionary Baptist Church in Clarksville, Tennessee. At the time of her death, she had four children, eight grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews. Thousands of mourners filled Tennessee State University’s Kean Hall on November 17, 1994, for the memorial service in her honor. Others attended the funeral at Clarksville’s First Baptist Church. Across Tennessee, the state flag flew at half-mast.
Nine months after Rudolph’s death, Tennessee State University, on August 11, 1995, dedicated its new six-story dormitory the “Wilma G. Rudolph Residence Center”. A black marble marker was placed on her grave in Clarksville’s Foster Memorial Garden Cemetery by the Wilma Rudolph Memorial Commission on November 21, 1995. In 1997, Governor Don Sundquist proclaimed that June 23 be known as “Wilma Rudolph Day” in Tennessee
United Press Athlete of the Year 1960 and Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year for 1960 and 1961. Also in 1961, the year of her father’s death, Rudolph won the James E. Sullivan Award, an award for the top amateur athlete in the United States, and visited President John F. Kennedy.
She was voted into the National Black Sports and Entertainment Hall of Fame in 1973
National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974.
IN 1983 Wilma was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, honored with the National Sports Award in 1993,
Wilma was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.
In 1994, the portion of U.S. Route 79 in Clarksville, Tennessee between the Interstate 24 exit 4 in Clarksville to the Red River (Lynnwood-Tarpley) bridge near the Kraft Street intersection was renamed to honor Wilma Rudolph.
Wilma Rudolph was born into a very large, poor, African-American family. She was the twentieth of twenty-two children. Since she was sick most of the time, her brothers and sisters all helped to take care of her. They took turns rubbing her crippled leg every night. They also made sure she did not try to take off her leg braces. Every week, Wilma’s mother drove her to a special doctor eighty kilometers away. Here, she got physical treatments to help heal her leg.
She later said: “My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”