Black History Month Pathfinder Profile: Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph was a ground-breaking track and field sprinter who became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at the 1960 Olympic Games. Rudolph also championed civil rights and worked to inspire the next generation through education and coaching.

Rudolph was born prematurely and was a sickly child. She was stricken with double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio as a child and she had problems with her left leg that made it necessary for her to wear a leg brace. She could not walk without an orthopedic shoe until she was 11 years old.

Rudolph was first a star on the basketball court before a chance meeting steered her towards track and field. At 16, Rudolph became the youngest member of the U.S. track and field team heading to Melbourne, Australia. She won a bronze medal in the 400-meter relay.  She enrolled at Tennessee State University and studied education while training for the 1960 Olympics in Rome.

Rudolph shined at the 1960 Olympics. She tied a world record in the 100-meter semifinals and won gold in the final. She then broke the Olympic record in the 200-meter dash before claiming another gold medal with her time of 24.0 seconds. She was also part of the U.S. team that established the world record in the 400-meter relay before going on to win gold with a time of 44.5 seconds. As a result, Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympic Games.

Upon returning home, Rudolph refusing to attend a homecoming parade in her honor if it was not going to be integrated.

The Associated Press named Rudolph the Female Athlete of the Year Award in both 1960 and 1961. She also won the AAU’s Sullivan Award in 1961 as the outstanding amateur athlete of the year. She retired from the sport and earned her degree from Tennessee State before starting a new career in Education. Rudolph’s accomplishments were honored by several sports organizations on the national and international level. She was named to the National Track & Field Hall of Fame in 1974, the International Sports Hall of Fame in 1980, and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983. In 1977, she published her autobiography, Wilma, which was turned into a made-for-TV film. She worked to build track and field programs around the country and often spoke about the benefits of running and competing. In 1990, she became the first woman to receive the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Silver Anniversary Award. Tennessee State University named the indoor track and dormitory in honor of Rudolph.

The Ellison for Congress team salutes Wilma Rudolph for charting a new path in track and field by relentlessly pursuing her dreams to become one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century.

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