Editor’s Note: The Sentinel sports staff is putting together a summer series looking at the legacies of the most influential African-American athletes in history. Today: Wilma Rudolph.
In the 1950s and 1960s, there was only one fastest woman in the world. Her name was Wilma Rudolph.
Rudolph, a three-time Olympic gold medalist, captivated international audiences with her blazing speed and civil rights pioneering.
Many have graced the same nicknames Rudolph has over the years — for example, The Tornado, The Flash, The Track Star — but the fact remains.
There was only one Wilma Rudolph.
Rudolph, the 20th of 22 siblings, was born in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee. She grew up with several childhood illnesses, including infantile paralysis (caused by polio), pneumonia and scarlet fever. She recovered from polio but was physically disabled for much of her childhood. She lost strength in her left leg and foot, and had to wear a leg brace.
Because of the limited healthcare options for African-Americans at the time, her parents had to take Rudolph to the historically black Meharry Medical College in Nashville, 50 miles from Bethlehem. For two years, Rudolph and her mother took weekly bus trips to Nashville for treatments on her leg. In addition, she also received at-home massages from members of her family four times a day and wore an orthopedic shoe for extra support. Because of all of these steps taken, Rudolph overcame polio and learned to walk on her own by age 12.
That makes her a hero in and of itself.
Rudolph attended the all-black Burt High School and excelled in basketball and track. Her sophomore year, she set the school’s scoring record with 803 points and her coach, C.C. Gray, nicknamed her “Skeeter” because she was so fast. That same year of high school, she competed at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute in track and despite losing, it was a major motivation to keep going with the sport. During high school, she was spotted by Tennessee State University coach Ed Temple, who became a mentor.
Rudolph’s high school experience was a little different from the average American’s. In 1956, when she was just aged 16 and a junior in high school, Rudolph qualified for the 200-meter run at the track and field team trials in Seattle as the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic Team. While she would be defeated in the prelims, Rudolph would run the third leg of the 4×100 relay, helping the team to a bronze medal after equaling the world record of 44.9 seconds. The Australian relay team won gold in 44.5 seconds.
Rudolph’s first child, Yolanda, was born in 1958, just before she enrolled at Tennessee State. She competed in track before graduating in 1963 with a bachelor’s degree in education. During college she won a silver and gold medal at the Pan-American games in Chicago, and won three AAU indoor titles.
Then came the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, where Rudolph cemented her legendary status with three gold medals in the 100, 200 and 4×100 relay. She was the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics competition and the first American woman to win a gold medal since Helen Stephens in 1936. This is also how her main nickname stuck: “The Fastest Woman in the World,” though Italians would refer to her as, “La Gazzella Nera” (The Black Gazelle) and the French referred to her as, “La Perle Noire” (The Black Pearl).
Rudolph continued to compete all around the world. Her hometown, renamed Clarksville, celebrated, “Welcome Wilma Day” on Oct. 4, 1960. Rudolph insisted the day, which celebrated her with many different festivities in the town, be fully integrated and it was the first time this was done in the city’s history. 1,100 people were estimated to have attended.
Rudolph retired from track and field at age 22, at the peak of her career because she wanted to be remembered at her best. At the time of retirement, Rudolph was the world record-holder in the 100-meter, 200-meter and 4×100. She also won seven national AAU sprint titles and set the women’s indoor record of 6.9 seconds in the 60-yard dash.
When asked why she would not come out of retirement for the 1964 Olympics, she said, “If I won two gold medals, there would be something lacking. I’ll stick with the glory I’ve already won like Jesse Owens did in 1936.”
During her career, Rudolph was named United Press International Athlete of the Year, Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year twice, the James E. Sullivan top amateur athlete award, the Babe Didrikson Zaharias award and the National Sports Award. She is in five different Hall of Fames and even had a postage stamp created in her honor in 2004.
After her retirement, Rudolph served as a U.S. ambassador for sporting events all over the world and took a one-month trip to West Africa as a representative from the U.S. State Department. She also participated in Civil Rights protests with fellow residents of her hometown Clarksville, helping the city to be fully integrated.
She went on to become a full-time teacher and supported several programs that helped young track and field athletes train. At the 1984 Summer Olympics, she served as a commentator for ABC Sports.
In 1994, Rudolph was diagnosed with brain cancer in July and died in November of the same year at the age of 54.
She will be remembered by several different nicknames in many different languages, but one thing is certain: there will only ever be one Wilma Rudolph.
“I loved the feeling of freedom in running, the fresh air, the feeling that the only person I’m competing with is me,” Rudolph said.
And for most of her career, that was true.
She was, and is, in a league of her own.
— Contact Assistant Sports Editor Beau Troutman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BVTroutman.
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