I loved the feeling of freedom in running, the fresh air, the feeling that the only person I’m competing with is me.
To win an Olympic medal is an extraordinary achievement. To overcome polio and racism and to win three golds is exceptional. Never mind African-American, Wilma Rudolph was the first American woman of any ethnicity to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic games.
The story of Wilma “The Tornado” Rudolph is all the more remarkable because of how her life started. Aged four she contracted the infectious disease polio, which twisted her left leg out of shape. She recovered, but had to wear a brace on her affected leg and foot until she was nine. With her foot being confined to an orthopaedic shoe for the subsequent two years, it was hardly the likely start to a glittering athletic career.
Rudolph was the twentieth of twenty-two children. Her mother Blanche was a maid, her father Ed a porter. During her early years, Rudolph’s family were crucial to supporting her interest in sport.
My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.
Basketball was her favoured sport at school and her coach C. C. Gray gave her the nickname “Skeeter” because “You’re little, you’re fast and you always get in my way.” This combination of talent and tenacity was notable even then as Rudolph was quickly scouted by the Tennessee State University coach at a track competition a short while later.
Only a year after TSU coach Ed Temple recruited Rudolph to his summer “track camps”, Wilma Rudolph won a bronze medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. She was the youngest member of the US team, aged a mere 16.
In 1958, the athlete gave birth to the daughter of her childhood sweetheart and later husband, Robert Elridge. Despite the physical effort that pregnancy exerts on the body, she returned to the track in 1959 winning a gold medal in the 4 x 100 metre relay at the Pan American Games.
Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday.
By 1960, aged 20, she was in the form of her life. At the 1960 Olympics in Rome she won three gold medals: in the 100 metres, 200 metres and the 4 x 100 metre relay. Though she broke the world record clocking a remarkable 11 seconds, it was not credited as such due to favourable wind. Nonetheless, she was quickly hailed worldwide as “the fastest woman in history.”
As an athlete Rudolph was exceptional, irrespective of the personal and social barriers standing in her way. Needless to say however, her race was widely commented on following her success. Newspapers labelled her “The Black Pearl” and “The Black Gazelle”, uncomfortably presenting her as “exotic”, an ultimately derogatory stereotype that has inhibited women of colour from defining themselves as part of the societies they are from. When Rudolph returned home to Clarksville, the “old-fashioned segregationist” governor Buford Ellington planned to oversee her celebration event. After she refused to attend a segregated event, her parade and banquet were supposedly the first integrated events in her hometown. She also participated in protests until segregation laws were changed.
Following her retirement from sport in 1963 – at the peak of her career, Rudolph graduated from university and dedicated her life to helping young people. She initially worked in Cobb Elementary School, teaching six and seven year-olds. From 1967 she worked for Job Corps, a free education and training organisation for young people. She became involved with a program called “Operation Champion”, where well-known athletes went into poor inner-city areas for youth sports training.
I have always believed that the most important aspect of my life is working with young people. It’s been my dream to start programs that, through athletics, foster education.
Rudolph continued to work to better society for the rest of her life. Through her work with young people, especially the marginalised, through serving as US goodwill ambassador to French West Africa, and through founding the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a non-profit organisation coordinating community-based sports programs.
In 1994, Rudolph died of brain cancer in Nashville, Tennessee. Despite her short life, she managed to not only to achieve the remarkable but she also shared her success with others. She recognised that she could inspire more women to achieve what she had and that they needed the confidence to push themselves to success, irrespective of how society sought to value them. Her conviction enabled her to change not only her life but the lives of many across the globe: “I can’t are two words that have never been in my vocabulary. I believe in me more than anything in this world.”