Rudolph in 1960
|Full name||Wilma Glodean Rudolph|
June 23, 1940
Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee, United States
November 12, 1994 (aged 54)
Brentwood, Tennessee, United States
|Height||5 ft 11 in (180 cm)|
|Weight||130 lb (59 kg)|
|Sport||Track and Field|
|Club||TSU Tigerbelles, Nashville|
|Achievements and titles|
|Olympic finals||Track and Field|
Wilma Glodean Rudolph (June 23, 1940 – November 12, 1994) was an American athlete and an Olympic champion. Rudolph was considered the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s and competed in two Olympic Games, in 1956 and in 1960.
In the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games. A track and field champion, she elevated women's track to a major presence in the United States. As a member of the black community, she is also regarded as a civil rights and women's rights pioneer. Along with other 1960 Olympic athletes such as Cassius Clay, who later became Muhammad Ali, Rudolph became an international star due to the first international television coverage of the Olympics that year.
The powerful sprinter emerged from the 1960 Rome Olympics as "The Tornado, the fastest woman on earth". The Italians nicknamed her La Gazzella Nera ("The Black Gazelle"); to the French she was La Perle Noire ("The Black Pearl").
Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born prematurely at 4.5 pounds (2.0 kg), the 20th of 22 siblings from two marriages; her father Ed was a railway porter and her mother Blanche a maid. Rudolph contracted infantile paralysis (caused by the polio virus) at age four. She recovered, but wore a brace on her left leg and foot (which had become twisted as a result) until she was nine. She was required to wear an orthopaedic shoe for support of her foot for another two years. Her family traveled regularly from Clarksville, Tennessee, to Meharry Hospital (now Nashville General Hospital at Meharry) in Nashville, Tennessee for treatments for her twisted leg. In addition, by the time she was twelve years old she had also survived bouts of polio and scarlet fever.
In 1953, 12-year-old Rudolph finally achieved her dream of shedding her handicap and becoming like other children. Her older sister was on a basketball team, and Wilma wanted to follow her sister's footsteps. While in high school, Rudolph was on the basketball team when she was spotted by Tennessee State track and field coach Ed Temple. Being discovered by Temple was a major break for a young athlete. The day he saw the tenth grader for the first time, he knew he had found a natural athlete. Rudolph had already gained some track experience on Burt High School's track team two years before, mostly as a way to keep busy between basketball seasons.
While attending Burt High School, Rudolph became a basketball star setting state records for scoring and leading her team to the state championship. She also joined Temple's summer program at Tennessee State and trained regularly and raced with his Tigerbelles for two years. By the time she was 16, she earned a berth on the U.S. Olympic track and field team and came home from the 1956 Melbourne Games with an Olympic bronze medal in the 4×100 m relay to show her high school classmates.
In 1959, Rudolph won a gold medal in the 4×100 m relay at Pan American Games (with Isabelle Daniels, Barbara Jones, and Lucinda Williams) and an individual silver in the 100 m. The same year she won the AAU 100 m title and defended it for four consecutive years. During her career, she also won three AAU indoor titles.
At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome she won three Olympic titles: in the 100 m, 200 m and 4×100 m relay. As the temperature climbed toward 110 °F (43 °C), 80,000 spectators jammed the Stadio Olimpico. Rudolph ran the 100-meter dash in an impressive 11 seconds flat. However the time was not credited as a world record, because it was wind-aided. She also won the 200-meter dash in 23.2 seconds, a new Olympic record. After these wins, she was being hailed throughout the world as "the fastest woman in history". Finally, on September 11, 1960, she combined with Tennessee State teammates Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams and Barbara Jones to win the 400-meter relay in 44.5 seconds, setting a world record. Rudolph had a special, personal reason to hope for victory—to pay tribute to Jesse Owens, the celebrated American athlete who had been her inspiration, also the star of the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Berlin, Germany.
Following post-games European tour by the American team Rudolph returned home to Clarksville. At her wishes, her homecoming parade and banquet were the first fully integrated municipal events in the city's history.
Rudolph retired from track competition in 1962 at age 22 after winning two races at a U.S.–Soviet meet.
She got a job teaching Grade 2 in her childhood school. Conflict forced her to leave the position. She moved to Indianapolis to head a community center. Then she moved to St. Louis Missouri, then Detroit, Michigan, and then returned to Tennessee for a time in the late 60s before moving again to California. She then lived in Chicago during the Mayor Richard J. Daley years.
Awards and honors
Rudolph was United Press Athlete of the Year 1960 and Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year for 1960 and 1961. Also in 1961, the year of her father's death, Rudolph won the James E. Sullivan Award, an award for the top amateur athlete in the United States, and visited President John F. Kennedy.
In 1994, the portion of U.S. Route 79 in Clarksville, Tennessee between the Interstate 24 exit 4 in Clarksville to the Red River (Lynnwood-Tarpley) bridge near the Kraft Street intersection was renamed to honor Wilma Rudolph.
Career and family
In 1963, Rudolph was granted a full scholarship to Tennessee State University where she received her bachelor's degree in elementary education. After her athletic career, Rudolph worked as a teacher at Cobb Elementary School, coaching track at Burt High School, and became a sports commentator on national television.
Rudolph was married twice. On October 14, 1961, she married Willie Ward, a track star at North Carolina College at Durham, only to divorce him 17 months later. In summer 1963 she married her high school sweetheart Robert Eldridge, with whom she already had a daughter born in 1958. They had four children: Yolanda (b. 1958), Djuanna (b. 1964), Robert Jr. (b. 1965) and Xurry (b. 1971). She divorced Eldridge after 17 years of marriage, and returned to Indianapolis where she raised her children and hosted a local TV show.
In July 1994, shortly after her mother’s death, Rudolph was diagnosed with a brain tumor. On November 12, 1994, at age 54, she died of cancer in her home in Nashville. Wilma also had throat cancer. She was interred at Edgefield Missionary Baptist Church in Clarksville, Tennessee. At the time of her death, she had four children, eight grandchildren, and many nieces and nephews. Thousands of mourners filled Tennessee State University's Kean Hall on November 17, 1994, for the memorial service in her honor. Others attended the funeral at Clarksville's First Baptist Church. Across Tennessee, the state flag flew at half-mast.
Nine months after Rudolph's death, Tennessee State University, on August 11, 1995, dedicated its new six-story dormitory the "Wilma G. Rudolph Residence Center". A black marble marker was placed on her grave in Clarksville's Foster Memorial Garden Cemetery by the Wilma Rudolph Memorial Commission on November 21, 1995. In 1997, Governor Don Sundquist proclaimed that June 23 be known as "Wilma Rudolph Day" in Tennessee.
The Woman's Sports Foundation Wilma Rudolph Courage Award is presented 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. This award was first given in 1996 to Jackie Joyner-Kersee.
A life-size bronze statue of Rudolph stands at the southern end of the Cumberland River Walk at the base of the Pedestrian Overpass, College Street and Riverside Drive, in Clarksville.
In 2000 Sports Illustrated magazine ranked Rudolph as number one in its listing of the top fifty greatest sports figures in twentieth-century Tennessee. A year before, she was ranked as 41st greatest athletes of the 20th century by ESPN.
Following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Berlin in 1994, Berlin American High School (BAHS) was turned over to the people of Berlin and became the "Gesamtschule Am Hegewinkel". The school was renamed the "Wilma Rudolph Oberschule" in her honor in the summer 2000.
In 1977 a made-for-TV docudrama titled Wilma (also known as The Story of Wilma Rudolph) was produced by Bud Greenspan; it starred Shirley Jo Finney, Cicely Tyson, Jason Bernard and Denzel Washington in one of his first roles.
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