Her Story: Wilma Rudolph

Georgia as Wilma Rudolph
Georgia as
Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph (1940 – 1994) became the first American woman to win three gold medals during a single Olympic game during the 1960 Rome Olympics. This track and field superstar quickly became an international icon as the world marveled at her groundbreaking accomplishments.

The odds were against Rudolph from the start. She was born prematurely weighing just 4.5 pounds to a poor family in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee. Ruldof was one of 22 children, (no, this is not a typo…. 22 kids, let that sink in!). As a young child she contracted scarlet fever, pneumonia, whooping cough, measles, chicken pox, and polio which left her unable to use one leg. She was told that she would never walk again by the doctors, but her mother told her otherwise, and she chose to believe her mother.

Her home will full of loving people that cared for her around the clock, massaging her crippled leg, entertaining her, and lifting her spirits up. Rudolph was determined to get her brace off and live a ‘normal’ life, she worked hard at recovering. By the time she was 9 she shocked the doctors by walking. Her brothers set up a basketball hoop in the yard, 11 year old Rudolph became hooked on playing basketball. By the time she was 12 she was challenging the neighborhood boys to race.

Rudolph played basketball in high school and scored 803 points her sophomore year. She also began running with the track team and caught the attention of the women’s track coach at Tennessee State University. Rudolph began training with the college team during her summer breaks. In the fall of 1957, she entered Tennessee State University, she spent most of her free time running. 

By 1960 she was ready for the Olympics in Rome, Italy. Rudolph won three gold medals, tied the world record in the 100 meters, and set an Olympic record in the 200. Her achievements at the Rome Olympics made her a legend not just because of what she accomplished, but because of all that she overcame.

The Governor of Tennessee planned a welcome home celebration for Rudolph, she refused to attend the event if it was segregated. Her parade and banquet were the first integrated events in her hometown. 

Rudolph became an instant celebrity in the United States and in Europe. She dedicated her life after her Olympic career to helping young athletes, she ran inner-city sports clinics and served as a consultant to university track teams. In 1973 Ruldolph was voted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame, and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974. She wrote an autobiography, Wilma, published in 1977. Ruldoph said that her proudest accomplishment was founding the Willma Ruldoph Foundation, dedicated to supporting amateur athletics. “The Fastest Woman in the World” left an indelible legacy on the world of athletics and the world at large.

Wilma Rudolph

About The Author


Mother, Photographer, Wisecracker.... not necessarily in that order.

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