Wilma Rudolph: Why Her Three Gold Medals Matter

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When she was young, it seemed like Wilma Rudolph didn’t stand a chance of going far in life owing to her illnesses. She suffered from a weak leg after contracting polio but learned how to walk without the use of an orthopedic shoe or leg brace. 

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Despite these challenges, Rudolph became an athlete, competed on the world’s biggest stage, the Olympics and even became a world record holder. Here’s her story.

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Wilma Rudolph’s Early Life

Wilma Rudolph: Why Her Three Gold Medals Matter
Wilma Rudolph crossing the line in a race. Source: Wikimedia licensed by Public domain

Wilma Rudolph was one of 22 children, born on 23 June 1940, in Tennessee. Her family lived in Bethlehem and then moved to Clarksville, where she did her studies. Rudolph was a sickly child, suffering from childhood illnesses: 

As a result, she used a leg bracelet but was able to overcome her disability through physical therapy and support from her family. 

During this period, Rudolph did homeschooling and after, joined Cobb Elementary School, and later, the all-black Burt High School, where she was part of the track and basketball teams. 

Before she finished high school, she got pregnant, but went on to pursue her higher education at Tennessee State University and also joined the track team.

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Wilma Rudolph’s Career

Wilma Rudloph’s career review. Video Credit: Memory Mountain – Sports

Once she regained the use of her left leg, she joined her sister in playing basketball. She was good at the sport and became a regular starter. Due to her speed, she was nicknamed ‘Skeeter’. 

While playing basketball, the Tennessee State University track coach Ed Temple track and field coach scouted her and provided her with what turned out to be the biggest opportunity of her career. 

The good thing is that Rudolph wasn’t new to track and field. She lost her first race but continued competing and even joined a summer camp where she sharpened her skills. The athlete won the next nine races she entered.

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1956 Olympics

A career review of Wilma Rudolph. Video Credit: RARE History

In 1956, Wilma Rudolph successfully trialed for 200 meters and was part of the 1956 Summer Olympic team that represented the county in Melbourne, Australia. 

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Unfortunately, she never made it to the finals of the event and later joined her teammates in competing in the 4 by 100 meters relay team, where they won the bronze medal. 

She was excited about the bronze and set her sights on winning a gold medal in the next Olympics. Rudolph returned to her university to train. 

Before the 1960 games in Rome, Italy, the runner won a silver medal at the Pan American Games, a gold in the 4 by 100 meters and scooped gold medals in the Amateur Athletic Union games. 

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Olympic Record

Wilma Rudolph’s journey. Video Credit: Clarksville Community Network

Her racing record before the Olympics was great and Wilma Rudolph looked set on producing solid performances. She competed in three events – the 100 meters, 200 meters and the 4 by 100 meters relay – and bagged a gold medal in each, setting a record in all. 

She was the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic Games, and earned the title of the fastest woman in the world.

Rudolph became a public figure, with international publications branding her with different names. She made several television appearances including on shows such as Wilma Rudolph: Olympic Champion and To Tell The Truth and also received several awards like the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year.

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Post Retirement

Wilma Rudolph retired afterwards, citing she wanted to leave at the top of her game. The former athlete became a teacher and coach and also worked in community centers across the United States. Later on, her story was documented in her autobiography, Wilma and later adapted into a film.  

The athlete was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame and the National Track & Field Hall of Fame. The Tennessee State University named the indoor track and dormitory in her honor. She became the first woman to receive the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Silver Anniversary Award. 

In her hometown of Clarksville, a street was named Wilma Rudolph Boulevard in her honor. Wilma also started the Wilma Rudolph Foundation through which she promoted amateur athletics.

She was diagnosed with brain tumor and throat cancer and succumbed on 12 November 1994 in Brentwood, Tennessee.

Wilma Rudolph was an inspiration to the black community. Having overcome serious childhood illnesses to become a three-time Olympic Gold medalist and break records was admirable.

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