Women who paved the way: Wilma Rudolph


Courtesy of Joop van Bilsen/Anefo on Creative Commons

Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals for track and field at a single Olympics.

Emily Dvareckas, Photo Editor

In light of Women’s History Month, The Hawks’ Herald is featuring important women from throughout history. The third week of March highlights women who have paved the way in sports.

Wilma Rudolph was born on June 23, 1940 in Tennessee. She had 21 siblings who constantly gave her the support and care she needed. As a child, Rudolph suffered from scarlet fever, double pneumonia and polio and it was predicted that she would never be able to walk. She persevered even after being left with lasting health issues.

She had an issue with her left leg and needed a brace in order to walk when she was 8 years old. When she was 11, her mother found her outside playing basketball, a feat no one would have thought possible a few years earlier. Rudolph attended an all-Black high school where she joined the basketball team and was nominated as All-American in the sport.

After a chance meeting with Ed Temple, the track coach for Tennessee State University, Rudolph started to train for track at the university. In 1956, she qualified for the Summer Olympics in Australia and at the age of 16, she went to Australia to compete for Team U.S.A. She won the bronze medal in the 400-meter relay. She returned to the Olympics, this time in Italy in 1960, determined to win gold.

Her training paid off as she broke several world records. She won the 100-meter finals with a time of 11.0 seconds, surpassing her already achieved world record from the semi-finals. She then broke the Olympic record for the 200-meter dash and aided Team U.S.A. in breaking the world record for the 400-meter dash.

Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympic Games, earning the title of “fastest woman in the world.” She returned home and retired from track soon after and went on to finish her degree at Tennessee State University before she began teaching.

She remained involved in the sport, working as a coach, running a community center and establishing an organization to help amateur runners. In 1960 and 1961, Rudolph won the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year award. She became the first woman to be awarded the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Silver Anniversary Award in 1990.

Tennessee State University honored the achievements of Rudolph by naming the indoor track and a dormitory after her. Rudolph passed away on Nov. 12, 1994 after a battle with brain cancer.