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Your Mark, Get Set, Change the world: The Story of Wilma Rudolph

Jade Gagné, Sports Editor

Via Getty Images


“I always say an athlete isn’t just what we see on the field or the court. What creates them is their story. You can judge an athlete on their performance, but not on their stories.” -J. G

Meet the unstoppable woman who sprinted past racial barriers to create new world records. This civil rights pioneer did not only leave behind a legacy, but she also left a dream.


Who is Wilma Rudolph?

Born prematurely on June 23rd, 1940, in St Bethlehem, Tennessee, Wilma developed medical issues very early in her life. She suffered from pneumonia twice and from scarlet fever, and at  the age of five, she contracted infantile paralysis (caused by the poliovirus). She recovered from it, but ended up losing strength in her left leg and foot. Since then, she had to walk around with a metal leg brace.

From that day, Wilma only wanted one thing: to be able to run. The doctors had no hope; they told her she might never walk again, but Wilma and her family never gave up.

At age nine, after all the efforts and all the medical treatment, she was finally walking freely.

“My mother taught me very early to believe I could achieve any accomplishment I wanted to. The first was to walk without braces.” – Wilma Rudolph

First love

Wilma’s first love happened to be basketball. She started playing at age eleven with her brothers, but just for fun & giggles. Her relationship with this sport became serious once she attended Clarksville High School. She got recruited into the High School’s team and she even received the nickname ‘Skeeter” from her high school coach C. C. Gray, because she was “as fast as a mosquito”.

During her basketball years, she was nominated as an All-American, and she was an All-State player- let’s just say that Wilma Rudolph was an extraordinary athlete from the start.

Start of a new environment

At the age of sixteen, Wilma started a new chapter. She was introduced to the Track and field world.

While still a senior, she was discovered by the Tennessee State University Track & Field coach, Ed Temple, during one of her basketball games. Her rapidity was once again so incredible that the college track & field team recruited her.

Remember when I called her an unstoppable woman? Well, in that same year (1956), she not only played basketball in her High School’s team, while also competing at the college level of Track and field, but she participated in the Olympics.

The first Olympics

Wilma had her first Olympic experience in 1956. She went to the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, and won the bronze medal in the 4x100m relay with the USA team. She never saw it as a loss - it was just the start.

Two years later, she had a baby and just a few weeks after the birth, she enrolled in Tennessee State University and started her professional career. Nothing could stop her.

The fastest woman on this earth

At twenty years old, four years after her first ever Olympics, Wilma came and changed history. She went to the September 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and her dominance was very much present. Wilma became the first American woman to ever win three track-and-field gold medals and to break three world records. She completed the 100m in 11 seconds, the 200m in 24 seconds, and the 4x100m in 44.5 seconds.

On this day, she became a legend, but, most importantly, she became a hero.

Time to go home

After the Olympics, Wilma refused to attend her homecoming parade in Clarksville, since the event was only welcoming white communities - she refused to go if the people she was representing couldn’t be a part of it. On October 4, 1960, Clarksville welcomed the first ever fully integrated event, in honor of Wilma Rudolph.

Leaving a mark

In 1962, Wilma retired from the sport and decided to finish her degree in elementary education. She had a bachelor’s degree and worked in several community services.

In 1981, Wilma created the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, based in Indiana. The goal of her foundation is to promote community-based, youth-oriented athletics and to promote academic programs.

Saying goodbye

On November 12, 1994, Wilma Rudolph suffered from brain cancer and sadly passed away, leaving behind her four kids.

Two years after her death, the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award was created. It’s still being given to this day.

She might’ve left us, but her name will always remain in the track-and-field Hall of Fame and, mostly, in our hearts.


Wilma’s story built who she was. She won against all odds, fought for her rights, and showed us what’s possible.

She’s a hero, and on Black History Month, she deserves to be our hero.



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