Sports and sports figures are not high on my list of interests, but for Women’s History Month I decided to feature Wilma Rudolph after reading a quote of hers: “Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit.”
Rudolph faced adversity from the time she was born on May 23, 1940, a mere 4.5 pounds, in Saint Bethlehem, TN. The family moved to Clarksville shortly afterward where Rudolph grew up. One of 22 children—her father married twice—she had several illnesses as a child, including pneumonia and scarlet fever, and by the time she was five contracted polio.
Her parents sought medical care from historically Black Meharry Medical College in Nashville, and for two years her mother took her there weekly to help strengthen her left leg. She wore a leg brace until she was nine, but her recovery also progressed because her parents and siblings massaged her leg.
In high school Rudolph excelled at basketball and competed in track. When Ed Temple, Tennessee State’s track and field coach, saw how fast she was, he invited her to join his summer training program, and her skyrocketing career in track began.
She was 16 when she and three other women won the Bronze Medal for their 4×100-meter relay at the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games. Four years later in 1960 at the Olympic Games in Rome, Rudolph broke track records and won the 100- and 200-meter sprints and the 4×100-meter relay to earn three Gold Medals. She was labeled “The fastest woman in the World.” She retired from competing because she said she wanted to leave at her best. She earned her bachelor’s degree from Tennessee State and began to teach and coach.
She married William Ward in 1961, but they divorced in 1963, and she married her high school sweetheart Robert Eldridge, with whom she had a baby girl when she was in high school. The couple had three more children but divorced in 1980.
Rudolph earned countless other awards, and the 1977 movie Wilma is based on her life. The USPS issued a stamp in her honor in 2004.
Rudolph was diagnosed with brain cancer in July 1994 and later with throat cancer. She died November 12, 1994.
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