Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph
PHOTO: Library of Congress


A native of Clarksville, Wilma Rudolph was one of the most celebrated female athletes of all-time.

Her story is an inspirational one. She was born prematurely, weighing only 4.5 pounds — and the doctor doubted she would survive. She developed pneumonia and polio as a child, rendering her disabled for most of her childhood. For several years, her mother, brother or sister had to message her legs four times a day, and then she had to wear a metal brace for several years. Wilma didn’t start school until she was eight. Her father was a porter and her mother was a maid. Like other poor people of that era, Wilma Rudolph’s home had an outhouse.

This statue of Wilma Rudolph is in Clarksville

When she was in the eighth grade, Wilma Rudolph’s sister made the track team at Burt High School, but Wilma didn’t. Her father told the coach that the Rudolph sisters were a “package deal” — either both girls made the team, or neither girls made the team. Wilma thus made the team, and began to develop her track skills, although basketball was her favorite sport.

A few years later, Wilma participated in a track meet at Tuskegee Institute, where she lost every single race. But one person who saw her run that day — Track Coach Ed Temple of Tennessee State University — saw her, thought she had potential, and recruited her to his summer “track camps” at TSU. Only a year later, at the age of 16, Wilma Rudolph won a bronze medal at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

Wilma Rudolph was now a hero in her home town of Clarksville. But she was not satisfied with a bronze medal.

As an Olympic hero, Wilma Rudolph got to meet President Kennedy
PHOTO: Library of Congress

Now a member of the TSU track team, Rudolph devoted herself to running and made the 1960 Olympic Team (along with three of her TSU teammates). In September 1960, in Rome, Italy, she won the 100 meter race, the 200 meter race, and was a member of the team that won the 400 meter women’s relay. She thus became the first woman in history to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympics.

Now one of the most famous athletes in the world, Wilma Rudolph was greeted at home by a parade that is believed to have been Clarksville’s first biracial event.

Wilma Rudolph’s grave at the
Edgefield Missionary Baptist Church in Clarksville

However, this was before the existence of big-money endorsements for Olympic stars. In spite of her international fame, Rudolph never became rich.

After the excitement of the Olympics passed, she got married and began devoting most of her time to her family. She chose not to run in the 1964 Olympics, by which time she was teaching at her former elementary school. Later in her career she worked for federal youth programs, as a coach, and as a public relations person.

Wilma Rudolph died of brain cancer in 1994.