Skip to content

Unsung Heroes: Wilma Rudolph

2011 May 19

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.

Wilma Rudolph

The 1960 Summer Olympics, the first to be broadcast internationally (the 1948 games had been aired by the BBC, but only in London), helped launch the fame of one of the world’s best known athletes, Cassius Clay. But this post is about someone else who competed that year: the woman who would become known as “the Tornado” and “La Gazella Negra”, Wilma Glodean Rudolph (June 23, 1940 – November 12 1994).

Rudolph was not the most likely choice to become one of the best runners of her generation. The 20th in a family of 22 children, she was a premature birth, weighing only 4.5lbs. Racial segregation in the US at the time prevented Wilma from being treated at the local hospital, and the poverty caused by the Great Depression made it financially difficult for her family to take her elsewhere. Throughout her childhood her mother had to nurse her through measles, mumps, scarlet fever, whooping cough, chickenpox, and pneumonia.

The disease that had the most impact on her chances of athletic stardom, however, was polio, which left her partially paralysed and with a twisted left leg. It seemed unlikely that she would be able to walk again, let alone run. Wilma, however, was far too tenacious to be slowed down by a little thing like polio and childhood paralysis. Through a combination of intense physical therapy, corrective shoes, and a metal leg brace, Wilma regained the ability to walk unaided by the age of twelve.

My doctor told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.

Wilma Rudolph

No stranger to physical training by this point, Wilma decided to follow in the path of one of her older sisters and take up basketball. She excelled at the sport, setting state records for scoring, and catching the attention of Edward Temple – the track and field coach for Tennessee State University. She had some track experience already from high school athletics classes, and by 1956, aged 16, she was running to a high enough standard to have a spot on the US Olympic team for the 1956 games in Melbourne, where she picked up a bronze medal.

Four years beforehand she’d been unable to walk unaided, and four years before that she was being told by doctors that she’d never walk at all. Now she was an Olympic medallist. Of course, someone who overcomes polio through sheer determination isn’t the sort of person who settles for a mere bronze medal. In 1960 Wilma returned to the Olympics for the Rome games and landed no less than three gold medals, the first American woman to do so. She set a world record for the 200m sprint at 23.2 seconds, and one for the 400m relay with her teammates Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams, and Barbara Jones.

Black and white image of a young African-American woman, seated, with three Olympic gold medalsWhat made Wilma’s Olympic victory go from a regular badass achievement to a triple-decker pile of brilliance, however, was what she did afterwards. Upon returning to Clarksville, Tennessee, with her medals, a homecoming parade was arranged in her honour. She insisted the parade be an integrated event, where previous such occasions had always been segregated. Her banquet was the first time in the city’s history that a large meal was held without segregation. After this, Wilma joined the protests that took place in the city until segregation laws were struck down.

You want to hear about more awesomeness? Hopefully you do, because Wilma Rudolph still had plenty more of it to deliver. Her athletic excellence had earned her a full scholarship at Tennessee State University, you see, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in education. She taught for a while at her own former high school, followed by schools in Maine and Indiana. In 1967 she was asked by the then Vice President of the US, Hubert Humphrey, to take part in an athletic outreach programme aimed at underprivileged children living in housing projects in several major cities. When the programme ended she established her own non-profit organisation, the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, to continue the work. The foundation provided free coaching, academic assistance and personal support to kids in deprived areas.

The triumph can’t be had without the struggle. And I know what struggle is. I have spent a lifetime trying to share what it has meant to be a woman first in the world of sports so that other young women have a chance to reach their dreams.

Wilma Rudolph

For more detailed discussion on Wilma Rudolph’s athletic achievements and work as an educator and civil rights campaigner, check out Wilma Rudolph: Athlete and Educator by Alice Flanagan, and the good but somewhat short Wilma Unlimited by Kathleen Krull. Wilma’s 1977 autobiography, Wilma, is also good, but a bit tricky to find.

  • Unsung Heroes: spotlighting fascinating people we never learned about at school. Rob Mulligan also blogs at Stuttering Demagogue. Stay tuned for future Heroes, or send your own in to [email protected]!
4 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    May 19, 2011

    I have to say, the Unsung Heroes series has really made me realise that it’s not the case that women have made less amazing contributions to society than men, but rather that they’ve been ignored.

    For the record, I had always assumed that years of oppression had prevented the ladies from having the opportunity to make these kinds of contributions, but now I can see that’s not true either; it’s definitely a case of selective recollection.

    • Miranda permalink*
      May 19, 2011

      Yes – I’ve learned so much from this series, so well done Rob.

      Some of them, like Nellie Bly, seem to have attained fame at the time and then just sort of… slowly been eroded from the public perception of history. Only the suffragettes seem to have stuck, perhaps because they directly *attacked* this very issue.

      We’re having a themed week soon on women and protest which will hopefully illuminate some more historical whatsits!

    • May 19, 2011

      It has been interesting, in doing the research on these, to see the patterns in the availability of information. There’ve been quite a few I’ve wanted to write about but just haven’t been able to get sufficient biographical details on, because no one has seen fit to record them.
      This particularly goes for anyone who isn’t a white Western European/American, there’s a serious dearth of sources.

      • Miranda permalink*
        May 19, 2011

        Yes – or the libraries aren’t exactly stocking them in abundance. Or Amazon’s familiar “out of print but maybe one seller has an old edition … maybe” page turns up.

        I like that you recommend the books at the end anyway, though – even just to generate interest, and so on.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS