Wilma Rudolph was known as ‘the fastest woman on earth’, after she became the first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals; but there was once a time in her life when doctors told her she would never walk again – let alone become a world famous runner.
Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born prematurely on 23rd June 1940 in Clarksville, Tennessee, weighing only 4.5 pounds! Born into a very large family, she was the 20th of 22 children!
Very early on in life Wilma became seriously ill, she suffered from many illnesses including pneumonia and scarlet fever. When she was only 4 years old she developed polio. This disease meant that Wilma lost the use of her left leg and foot; it was at this point that doctors told her she would never be able to walk. Wilma’s mother however, disagreed!
Wilma later said,
“My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”
Her mother was determined that Wilma would overcome her disability. At that time Tennessee hospitals were still segregated, and the nearest hospital that would treat Wilma was 90 miles away in Nashville. Nevertheless, Wilma and her mother repeatedly made the long journey so that Wilma could receive the treatments she needed. The doctors taught her mother how to massage Wilma’s paralyzed leg; her mother in turn taught Wilma’s many brothers and sisters, and they took it in turns to massage her daily.
Until the age of 9 Wilma had to wear a brace on her leg; for another two years she was told to wear special shoes to help her walk; by 12 she had joined her school’s basketball team and was shooting hoops with the best of them! In fact, she didn’t just play for the school team, she became their star player and she was soon spotted by the state coach for track & field, Ed Temple.
Remarkably, at the age of 16, Wilma Rudolph was selected to join the USA Olympic track team, and headed to Australia for the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games as the youngest member of the US team. She came home with a Bronze medal, which she won in the sprint relay event.
Wilma spent the next four years getting ready for the 1960 Rome Olympics, and it was here that she earned the title of ‘the fastest woman on earth’!
First she won gold in the 100m, finishing in 11 seconds flat! Then she won gold, again, in the 200m – smashing the Olympic record! Finally she won gold a third time, with her three relay team mates Isabelle Daniels, Barbara Jones, and Lucinda Williams – and in doing so also set a new world record!
Her name became known around the world; the Italian press nicknamed her ‘La Gazella Negra’ – ‘the Black Gazelle’, while the French called her ‘La Perle Noir’ – ‘the Black Pearl’. To most of the world she was known as ‘the fastest woman on earth’.
Once the games were over Wilma was to return to her hometown of Clarksville for a huge celebration. When she learned that the event was planned to be segregated, she let them know that she wouldn’t attend if that was the case. Of course, there would be no event without the guest of honour, and so Wilma Rudolph’s homecoming parade & banquet became the first government event in the city where black and white people were allowed to freely mix and enjoy the party together.
Wilma received numerous awards including the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year Award, which she won twice! An award was also created in her name: The Women’s Sports Foundation Wilma Rudolph Courage Award is given to a female athlete who “exhibits extraordinary courage in her athletic performance, demonstrates the ability to overcome adversity, makes significant contributions to sports and serves as an inspiration and role model to those who face challenges, overcomes them and strives for success at all levels.”
After the excitement on the 1960 games had died down, Wilma decided to become a teacher and track coach. She later wrote an autobiography of her life called ‘Wilma’, which was turned into a film, and in 2004 she appeared on a US postage stamp!
Through her determination to overcome in the face of adversity and her incredible achievements she inspired people around the world, and continues to do so today.
In her own words:
“Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose … If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday.”
Find out more:
Watch Wilma’s gold-winning run in this video.
Read more about her life on this page and here.
Here is my short video about Wilma’s life: