Black History Month Celebration: Wilma Rudolph

Today, in honor of Black History Month, we celebrate Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994), a world record holding Olympic sprinter. Her legacy lies in her efforts to overcome obstacles early in life to become the fastest woman in the world.

Rudolph born in Tennessee in 1940 as the twentieth of twenty-two children. As a child, she suffered from pneumonia, scarlet fever, and polio. Her bout with polio left her disabled, requiring her to wear a leg brace from the age of five to twelve. During this time, she underwent intense physical therapy and learned to walk without the brace.

In high school, she excelled at basketball and track. In 1956, at the age of 16, she competed in the 200m and the 4x100m relay at the Melbourne Olympics. She continued to compete in track at Tennessee State University and set a world record for the 200m at the Olympic Trials in 1960.

At the Rome Olympics in 1960, she won gold in the 100m and 200m plus the 4x100m relay, becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympic Games.

Rudolph retired from competitions at the age of 22 and became a physical education teacher and coach. She also worked with non-profit organizations to promote sports for American children.

Wilma Rudolph was one of the first role models for black athletes and for female athletes. Her Olympic success gave a tremendous boost to women’s track in the United States and her celebrity also caused gender barriers to be broken at previously all-male track and field events, such as the Millrose Games.