Six-year-old Wilma Rudolph was different from the other kids. They could walk, run, and jump, but she was hampered by a paralyzed, twisted left leg. At her elementary school in Clarksville, Tennessee, she was harassed and teased by children who could run and play in ways she had never been able to. “I used to cry,” wrote Rudolph, recalling those days, “but no more.”
Rudolph had reason not to cry. By the time she wrote those words in her 1977 biography, she was a household name. The child whose body had once made movement nearly impossible was now a woman who had torn down Olympic barriers, achieving some important firsts for both women and African Americans.
For a while during Rudolph’s childhood, it seemed unlikely that she would live, much less reach such great athletic heights. When she was born, in 1940, Rudolph weighed just 4.5 pounds, and she suffered from a long bout of childhood illnesses, including pneumonia and scarlet fever, that nearly killed her. In 1944, when she was four years old, her health took another blow when she contracted polio, a viral illness that had been ravaging the health of young children in a series of epidemics for years. Though Rudolph survived, she became paralyzed in her left leg.
Rudolph’s family was poor, and she was the 20th of her father’s 22 children with two wives. Rudolph and her mother, a maid, had to travel on a segregated bus once a week for years to seek medical care 50 miles away from Clarksville. At home, her family massaged her foot multiple times a day in an attempt to get blood circulating in her paralyzed leg. It took years, but the treatments worked.
As Rudolph graduated from a leg brace to an orthopedic shoe, her parents noticed that she loved sports. When she was 13, she began to play basketball at school — without her special shoes. At a state basketball championship, she was spotted by Ed Temple, the track and field coach at Tennessee State University, a historically black university in Nashville. He invited Rudolph, who already was interested in track, to join his summer training program with TSU’s famous Tigerbelles, an all-black group of women runners famed for their discipline and speed. Rudolph was so fast — and so talented — that she became a kind of unofficial member of the Tigerbelles.
Meanwhile, her speed was turning heads outside of Tennessee, too. In 1956, the 16-year-old high school junior went to Seattle and burst onto the national scene with a run fast enough to qualify her for the Olympic Games. She headed to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and won a bronze medal as part of the American 4×100-meter relay team.
When Rudolph returned to high school, she became pregnant and gave birth to her first daughter, Yolanda. This presented a very real threat to her track career, since Temple refused to let mothers join his team. He was all too aware of the sexual stereotypes that went along with the racism his women athletes faced. He enforced strict codes of conduct for his runners. “I wanted this because at the time, there was a real dilemma over women participating in sports,” he explained. “I was going to prove to the world that you could be feminine and still get the job done.”
Temple made an exception for Rudolph, but only if she kept her distance both from her daughter and from Robert Eldridge, her boyfriend. Rudolph sent Yolanda to live with her sister in St. Louis, but it anguished her to be unable to visit her daughter or partner. Even today, Rudolph’s pregnancy and motherhood are often excluded from her biography.
Despite the strain of being separated from Yolanda, Rudolph trained relentlessly. She had a new goal: to compete in another Olympic Games. Though the Tigerbelles were often not allowed to use the restrooms at the tracks at which they competed and were even stranded when drivers refused to transport black passengers, they had become a formidable team. When Rudolph qualified for the 1960 Olympics, in Rome, she was one of eight Tigerbelles to compete — and Temple was named the women’s track and field coach.
In Rome, Rudolph accomplished the unthinkable: she snagged three gold medals, for the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and the relay. It was the first time an American woman had won three gold medals in a single Games, and Rudolph set a world record for each event. It was the first Olympics televised in the United States, and Rudolph — poised, soft-spoken, and confident — was an instant star.
Back home, Rudolph used her success to effect change in her hometown of Clarksville by refusing to attend any celebratory events that weren’t integrated. Her homecoming parade and banquet were the first nonsegregated events in the town’s history.
Rudolph retired from running after her Olympic victory, became a schoolteacher, and coached high school and college running teams. She also created her own nonprofit to encourage underprivileged kids in sports. But though she was widely decorated and beloved as an inspiration, her life was cut tragically short when she died of brain cancer at 54, in 1994.
“Someone asked me if I would describe her as a fighter,” Anita DeFrantz, an International Olympic Committee member, told the Los Angeles Times’ Randy Harvey about Rudolph. “No, I would describe her as a conqueror.”
For Rudolph, her legacy was simple: showing people that if you don’t give up, you can achieve your dreams. “I would be very sad if I was only remembered as Wilma Rudolph, the great sprinter,” she said in the 1980s. “To me, my legacy is to the youth of America to let them know they can be anything they want to be.”