The Life of 3x Olympic Gold Medalist Wilma Rudolph

Jackie Robinson, Jessie Owens, Muhammad Ali, and Serena Williams. Sound familiar, right? These are the names of some of the most famous African-American athletes to ever walk the Earth; however, an African-American athlete that you might not be familiar with is 3x Olympic gold medalist Wilma Rudolph.

Photo courtesy of Barbara Lowell

Early Life

National Women’s History Museum describes the turbulent childhood of the future Olympian. Wilma Rudolph was born on June 23, 1940, in Saint Bethlehem, Clarksville, Tennessee and grew up loved and supported by a large family. She was one of 22 other children.

Rudolph suffered from both scarlet fever and polio as a child, and because of these illnesses, she was forced to wear a brace on her leg. Rudolph’s diagnosis was desolate as doctors told her that she “would never walk again.”

By the time she was nine, Rudolph was brace free and began developing a love for all sports. As Rudolph neared her teenage years, it was clear that the young track star was a natural athlete. In high school, Rudolph was nominated for the All-American award for her performance in basketball. United States History details how her high school basketball coach, C.C. Gray, was asked by Ed Temple, the track coach for Tennessee State, to form an all girls track team. Rudolph joined the team for a summer sports camp session, and from that point on, running took over her life.

Photo courtesy of ESPNW


United States History tells the story of how Wilma Rudolph participated in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia at the age of 16 and won a bronze medal in the 4x4 relay. Tennessee State offered her a full scholarship after her victory, but she ultimately decided not to attend. Instead, Rudolph dedicated her time to building her athletic career.

In 1960, Rudolph attended the Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy, and took home three gold medals in the 100-meter, 200-meter, and the 4x100 meter. Wilma Rudolph became the first ever American woman to win three gold medals at the Olympic Games. Not only was she the first American woman to accomplish winning three gold medals at the Olympics, but she was also the first African-American woman to ever accomplish such a feat.

After her triple win at the 1960 Summer Olympics, Rudolph ensured that there would be another win waiting for her back home as well. According to National Women’s History Museum, Rudolph stood defiantly and stated that she would not attend her homecoming parade if it were not integrated. Because of her stance, Rudolph’s homecoming parade was the first racially- integrated event ever in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee. In both 1961 and 1962, the Associated Press gave her the Female Athlete of the Year award.

In 1962 Rudolph retired completely from track and field in 1962.

Photo courtesy of Women’ s Sports Foundation

Life After Track

United States History describes how Wilma Rudolph returned to Tennessee State and later graduated with a bachelor’s degree in education in 1963. Later that same year, Rudolph married her childhood sweetheart Robert Eldridge, and the two would later had four children before divorcing in 1980. United States History entails how

In 1977, Rudolph became an author and wrote her autobiography titled “Wilma.” Her autobiography later became a movie. She was served as a consultant during the production of the film.

After her career as a track star, Rudolph became very passionate about youth work. ESPN highlights the importance of how Rudolph founded and led the Wilma Rudolph Foundation in 1981, an organization dedicated to training underprivileged, aspiring athletes.

According to USA Track and Field, in 1983, Rudolph was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.  She became the first woman ever to be awarded the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Silver Anniversary Award in 1990. Towards the end of her life, United States History details how Rudolph developed a brain tumor and passed away on November 12, 1994, in Brentwood, Tennessee, at the age of 54.

Photo courtesy of Biography