- Wilma Rudolph, was the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games, despite running on a sprained ankle at the time.
In 1940 millions of Americans were poor -- our of work and homeless because of the Great Depression. The Rudolphs managed to make ends meet by doing things like making the girls' dresses out of flour sacks. Wilma was born prematurely and weighed only 4.5 pounds. Again, because of racial segregation, she and her mother were not permitted to be cared for at the local hospital. It was for whites only. There was only one black doctor in Clarksville, and the Rudolph's budget was tight, so Wilma's mother spent the next several years nursing Wilma through one illness after another: measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox and double pneumonia. But, she had to be taken to the doctor when it was discovered that her left leg and foot were becoming weak and deformed. She was told she had polio, a crippling disease that had no cure. The doctor told Mrs. Rudolph that Wilma would never walk. But Mrs. Rudolph would not give up on Wilma. She found out that she could be treated at Meharry Hospital, the black medical college of Fisk University in Nashville. Even though it was 50 miles away, Wilma's mother took her there twice a week for two years, until she was able to walk with the aid of a metal leg brace. Then the doctors taught Mrs. Rudolph how to do the physical therapy exercises at home. All of her brothers and sisters helped too, and they did everything to encourage her to be strong and work hard at getting well. Finally, by age 12, she could walk normally, without the crutches, brace, or corrective shoes. It was then that she decided to become an athlete.
At first, Wilma was tutored at home by her family because she was crippled. She first began school at the age of seven. In 1947, the schools of the Southern states were segregated -- black students and white students had to attend separate schools. Even though blacks had to pay the same taxes as whites, the schools for black students were usually poorly funded, so they were less likely to have adequate books, teachers, classrooms, or equipment. In junior high, Wilma followed her older sister Yolanda's example and joined the basketball team. The coach, Clinton Gray, didn't put her in a single game for three years. Finally, in her sophomore year, she became the starting guard. During the state basketball tournament, she was spotted by Ed Temple, the coach for the famous Tigerbells, the women's track team at Tennessee State University. Because Burt High School didn't have the funding for a track team, coach Temple invited Wilma to Tennessee State for a summer sports camp. After graduating from high school, Wilma received a full scholarship to Tennessee State. Because of all the celebrity she received from her track career, she took a year off from her studies to make appearances and compete in international track events. She returned and received a Bachelor's degree in education, graduating in 1963. In 1963, Wilma married her high school sweetheart, Robert Eldridge, with whom she had four children: Yolanda (1958), Djuanna (1964), Robert Jr. (1965), and Xurry (1971). They later divorced.
Wilma Rudolph's life is a story of achieving against the odds. Her first accomplishments were to stay alive and get well! In high school, she became a basketball star first, who set state records for scoring and led her team to a state championship. Then she became a track star, going to her first Olympic Games in 1956 at the age of 16. She won a bronze medal in the 4x4 relay. On September 7th, 1960, in Rome, Wilma became the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in the Olympics. She won the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and ran the anchor on the 400-meter relay team. This achievement led her to become one of the most celebrated female athletes of all time. In addition, her celebrity caused gender barriers to be broken in previously all-male track and field events.