Posted in Black History

Wilma Rudolph

Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us. — Wilma Rudolph

By Arlisha R. Norwood, NWHM Fellow | 2017

Despite being told as a child she would never walk again; Wilma Rudolph relentlessly pursued her dreams becoming an international track and field star. At the height of her career, “the fastest woman in the world” used her platform to shed light on social issues.

Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born on June 23, 1940 in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee. As one of 22 children, she was constantly surrounded by support and care, which she needed given her poor health. Rudolph survived bouts of polio and scarlet fever. Her illness forced her to wear a brace on her leg. Rudolph’s diagnosis was very bleak, “my doctor told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.” Together, Rudolph’s parents and siblings took turns taking care of her. They would often remove her leg brace and massage her injured leg. At the age of six, Rudolph began to hop on one leg. By eight she could move around with a leg brace.

At the age of 11, Rudolph’s mother discovered her playing basketball outside. She quickly turned to sports, becoming a natural athlete. She was nominated as All-American in basketball during high school. However, after a chance meeting with a college coach she turned to track and field. 

While still in high school Rudolph competed on the collegiate level. She competed in the 1956 Olympic games and won a bronze medal in 4×100 relay. Four years later, Rudolph headed to the 1960 summer Olympics determined to get gold. Her performance in Rome cemented her as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. She won three gold medals and broke at least three world records. Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at the same Olympic game. Her performance also earned her the title of “the fastest woman in the world.” 

Returning home an Olympic champion Rudolph refused to attend her homecoming parade if it was not integrated. She won the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year award in 1961. The following year, Rudolph retired from track and field. She went on to finish her degree at Tennessee State University and began working in education. She continued her involvement in sports, working at several community centers throughout the United States. She was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame and started an organization to help amateur track and field stars.

In 1990, Rudolph became the first woman to receive the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Silver Anniversary Award. The indoor track and dormitory at Tennessee State University are named in honor of Rudolph. In 1977, her life was the subject of a prime-time television movie. Rudolph died of a brain tumor on November 12, 1994.

These three women Wilma Rudolph, Audrey Patterson and Alice Coachman) lit the way for female Black Olympians, such as the world-renowned gymnast Simon Biles, gymnast Gabby Douglas, and bobsledder Vonetta Flowers. 

Works Cited

How to Cite this page

MLA – Norwood, Arlisha. “Wilma Rudolph.” National Women’s History Museum. National Women’s History Museum, 2017. Date accessed.

Chicago- Norwood, Arlisha. “Wilma Rudolph.” National Women’s History Museum. 2017.

Additional Resources

“Wilma Rudolph” Olympic Winners.


Versatile Christian Blogger, wife of Minister Woods, mother of 3, grandmother of 3.

3 thoughts on “Wilma Rudolph

  1. I love that quote and loved learning more about her. I have heard of her and learnt very little about her in one of my history courses so I’m glad you shared this. Now I know much more about her life and achievements.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Pooja, thank you for reading and commenting. I, too, am learning more about Black history and am amazed at the great things people accomplished in such harsh times and conditions.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, I learnt about some amazing people who achieved so much even under some of the worst conditions. A lot of black history has been forgotten but it helps when people share things like this post and keep those memories alive.

        Liked by 1 person

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