Wilma Rudolph was an exceptional athlete in track and field, a teacher, and an effective worker for civil rights. She is an impressive example of persistence in the face of adversity.
Wilma Rudolph was born in 1940, in St. Bethlehem, near Clarksville, Tennessee. She was the 20th of 22 children, and her parents struggled to support the family. Her father was a railway porter and her mother cleaned houses. These are not high paying positions, and during the Great Depression, with such a large family, the Rudolphs found it hard to feed and clothe their family, and to provide medical care for them. In addition, Tennessee at this time had segregation, a legal separation of people of different ethnic backgrounds that severely limited the opportunities of African-Americans like the Rudolphs. There were no doctors in Clarksville who would serve African-Americans, and the schools were divided, with schools for African Americans having fewer resources than those for European Americans.
Wilma was born prematurely and was often sick. She had polio as a child and lost the use of her left leg. Because of her poor health, she didn’t begin school until the age of seven.
Her mother, Blanche, took Wilma to the hospital every week for two years. They had to travel 50 miles to reach a medical facility that would care for her. She was treated at the medical school of Fisk University, where she was given a brace for her left leg. There, the doctors taught her mother the physical therapy exercises Wilma needed. Her brothers and sisters helped her work to strengthen her leg.
At age 12, Wilma was able to walk again. She played basketball in high school and set records there. It was at a basketball game that she got the attention of the Tennessee State track and field coach, who began training her. At age 16, she received the bronze medal in the 1956 Summer Olympics.
She received a scholarship, too, to Tennessee State, where she completed a degree in education but also trained in track.
In the 1960 Summer Olympics, she won three gold medals. She was known as “the fastest woman in the world.” Rudolph received an impressive array of awards over the course of her career, from being named as the AP Athlete of the Year and receiving the Sullivan Award as the top athlete of the year to membership in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
Before traveling the world as a speaker and goodwill ambassador, though, Rudolph returned to her old school as a coach.
She worked for civil rights in her hometown, beginning with her homecoming parade following her Olympic victory. This was the first integrated activity in Clarksville, and the banquet that evening was the first social event that all the citizens of the town could attend together. Rudolph participated in protests in Clarksville until segregation was ended.
Rudolph married Robert Eldridge in 1963, and they had four children. She worked as a teacher and a coach, but she also took part in programs such as Operation Champ, which used athletics to help kids growing up in difficult circumstances. She established the Wilma Rudolph Foundation in 1982. The foundation, housed in Atlanta, Georgia, supports young athletes with athletic and academic goals.
Rudolph died in 1994 of brain cancer, leaving a legacy as an athlete, and educator, and an activist.
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