Wilma Rudolph has been an inspirational American figure since I could read about Black history.
She exuded grace, talent, skill and integrity. She maintained all of these attributes while never having the privilege of progressing in a politically correct society.
Striking would be an understatement; unapologetically brown-skinned, 5’11 and 130 pounds and extraordinarily swift!
Wilma Rudolph, the 20th of her father’s 22 children, was born June 23, 1940, a pre-mature baby, weighing only 4 ½ lbs. She was ill most of her youth suffering from pneumonia, scarlet fever and later polio. This future Olympian lost full use of her left leg and was fitted with metal leg braces all by the age of 6.
By the age of 9 Wilma’s leg braces came off and she took an interest in her brothers game, basketball. Her brothers set up a hoop in the yard and she was enamored with the sport from that point on. At the All-Black high school that she attended, her coach, C.C. Gray, gave her the nick name, Skeeter.
“You’re little, you’re fast and you always get in my way,” he said.
In high school she became an all-state basketball player and colleges began to pay attention. Ed Temple, Tennessee State track coach contacted Wilma’s high school basketball coach to start a girl’s track team from the basketball team. He hoped that one of the forwards would become a sprinter, it was Wilma. In high school she was running track at the collegiate level. In 1956 she won a Bronze medal at Melbourne.
At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Rudolph became “the fastest woman in the world” and the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics. She won the 100 & 200 meter races and anchored the U.S. team to victory in the 4 x 100-meter relay, breaking records along the way.
• In the 100, she tied the world record of 11.3 seconds in the semifinals, then won the final by three yards in 11.0. However, because of a 2.75-meter per second wind — above the acceptable limit of two meters per second — she did not receive credit for a world record.
• In the 200, she broke the Olympic record in the opening heat in 23.2 seconds and won the final in 24.0 seconds.
• In the relay, Rudolph, despite a poor baton pass, overtook Germany’s anchor leg, and the Americans, all women from Tennessee State, took the gold in 44.5 seconds after setting a world record of 44.4 seconds in the semifinals.
Rudolph was adored by fans of all ethnicities. Sports Illustrated reported that the authorities were forced to hold back her admirers in Cologne and in Berlin, fans stole her shoes then surrounded her bus and beat on it with their fists until she waved.
Wilma Rudolph, with her soft spoken voice and strong build paved the way for African-American athletes and promoted elegantly the United States of America.
After her Gold Medal wins in Rome, everybody was eager to celebrate Wilma Rudolph’s win for the USA. Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington, who was elected as “an old-fashioned segregationist,” lead her welcome home celebration. Wilma, ever graceful and strong, said,
“I will not attend a segregated event.”
The Olympian motivated many Black female athletes, especially Florence Griffith Joyner(known as Flo-Jo)-the next woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics (1988).
“It was a great thrill for me to see,” Rudolph said. “I thought I’d never get to see that Florence Griffith Joyner — every time she ran, I ran.”
Wilma Rudolph had four children, she worked as a track coach at Indiana’s DePauw University and served as a U.S. goodwill ambassador to French West Africa.
Randolph created the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a non-profit, community-based, amateur, sports program.
“I tell them that the most important aspect is to be yourself and have confidence in yourself,” she said. “I remind them the triumph can’t be had without the struggle.”
Randolph was voted into:
• The Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1973
• The National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974
Rudolph passed away of brain cancer at age 54 on Nov. 12, 1994 in Nashville.
Her extraordinary calm and grace are what people remember most about her. Said Bill Mulliken, a 1960 Olympics teammate of Rudolph’s: “She was beautiful, she was nice, and she was the best.”
An autobiographical film was made about her life, “Wilma.”
We continue to celebrate this Outstanding Lady of Class: Ms. Wilma Randolph.
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