Who Is Wilma Rudolph: Winner Of Three Olympic Gold Medals

Profile of who Wilma Rudolph is and her accomplishments. First American woman to win three gold Olympic medals and the only woman to receive the National Sports Award.

Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born on June 23, 1940 in Bethlehem, Tennessee. Wilma's parents were Ed and Blanche Rudolph. Wilma, whose nickname was "Skeeter," was born with polio and weighed only four-and-a-half pounds. During her early childhood, she also had double pneumonia two times and scarlet fever. As the result of polio, her right leg was crippled. She wore a steel brace to enable her to walk. Wilma traveled daily from her home in Clarksville, Tennessee to Meharry Medical College in Nashville for therapeutic massages. Her mother and siblings also gave her massages at home. The treatments worked and when she was nine years old, she was able to stop wearing the brace and corrective shoes and walk normally. In her autobiography, "Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph," she wrote of the change in her life after she stopped wearing the brace:

"From that day on, people were going to start separating me from that brace, start thinking about me differently, start saying that Wilma is a healthy kid, just like the rest of them"¦.I went from being a sickly kid the other kids teased to a normal person accepted by my peer group, and that was the most important thing that could have happened to me at that point in my life. I needed to belong, and I finally did."

When she was thirteen, she was five-feet, eleven inches tall and was a star basketball player and track champion at Burt High School. During her sophomore year she set a record for high school girls' basketball by scoring 803 points. She was named an All-State player in basketball.



During the summer following her Sophomore year, Wilma attended a track and field summer camp at Tennessee State University. The summer team's coach Ed Temple had the team participate in the National Amateur Athletic Union contest in Philadelphia. Wilma entered nine races and won all of them, sweeping the whole junior division. When Wilma was a high school senior, she qualified for the United States Olympic Team, the youngest member. At the 1956 Olympic games in Melbourne, she ran the third leg of the 4x100 relay and the team won a Bronze Medal.

In September 1958, Rudolph enrolled in Tennessee State University. Her coach, Ed Temple helped support her while she was in college. She became a member of the famed "Tigerbelles," track team. In 1960 she again qualified for the U.S. Olympic team. At the Olympics in Rome she set a world record in the 200 meter race. That record lasted for eight years. She won a gold medal in three events, the 100 meter dash, 200 meter dash and 4x100 meter relay, becoming the first American woman to win three Olympic gold medals. Immediately after the Olympic games, Rudolph participated in track meets at the British Empire Games in London where she won all of the events. After participating in the London games, she and her team members went to Holland, Germany and throughout Europe. She was greeted by the public with enthusiasm and praise. She was called "La Gazelle," by the French and "La Gazzella Nera," by the Italians.

In her hometown of Clarksville, Wilma and her teammates were honored with a parade. She was given the key to the city of Chicago by Mayor Richard Daley and met with President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1961, she received the Sullivan Award in recognition for being the top amateur athlete in the U.S. She also received the Female Athlete of the Year Award.

Rudolph graduated from Tennessee State University on May 27, 1963. She became a second grade teacher at the school she attended as a child, Cobb Elementary School in Clarksville and a track coach at her alma mater Burt High School. In 1967, Vice President Hubert Humphrey invited her to work with Operation Champion, a program to train inner city youth in sports. She also served as President of the Indianapolis-based Wilma Rudolph Foundation. In 1983, she was inducted into the Tennessee State University Hall of Fame.

Wilma Rudolph died of cancer on November 12, 1994, at the age of 54. After her death Leroy Walker, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee stated, "All of us recognize that this is obviously a tremendous loss. Wilma was still very much involved with a number of Olympic programs. It's a tragic loss."

In 1993, President Clinton honored her with a National Sports Award, making Rudolph the only woman to receive the award. In 1994, she was elected to the National Women's Hall of Fame. In 1995, Tennessee State University dedicated the Wilma Rudolph Residence Center in her honor. In 1997, Governor Don Sandquist proclaimed June 23rd as Wilma Rudolph day in Tennessee.

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