As I promised and declared, I am interested in exploring the lives of phenomenal, groundbreaking women who have changed the world of sports forever. So, welcome to another installment of our sub-section – Groundbreaking Women in Sports. Today, we are going to explore the life and career of American sprinter Wilma Rudolph. Rudolph was born on June 23, 1940, in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee (now part of Clarksville). She was the twentieth of 22 siblings from her father Ed Rudolph’s two marriages. Shortly after Wilma’s birth, her family moved to Clarksville, Tennessee, where she grew up and attended elementary and high school. Her father, Ed, worked as a railway porter and did odd jobs in Clarksville, died in 1961; her mother, Blanche, worked as a maid in Clarksville homes and died in 1994.
Rudolph suffered from several early childhood illnesses, including pneumonia and scarlet fever, and she contracted infantile paralysis (caused by the poliovirus) at the age of five. She recovered from polio but lost strength in her left leg and foot. Physically disabled for much of her early life, Rudolph wore a leg brace until she was twelve years old. Rudolph attended Clarksville’s all-black Burt High School, where she excelled in basketball and track. During her senior year of high school, Rudolph became pregnant with her first child, Yolanda, who was born in 1958, a few weeks before her enrollment at Tennessee State University in Nashville, where she continued to compete in track.
When Rudolph was sixteen and a junior in high school, she attended the 1956 U.S. Olympic track and field team trials in Seattle, Washington, and qualified to compete in the 200-meter individual event at the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia – being the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team. Rudolph was defeated in a preliminary heat of the 200-meter race at the Melbourne Olympic Games but ran the third leg of the 4 × 100 m relay, for which the American team won the bronze medal, matching the world-record time of 44.9 seconds. While she was still a sophomore at Tennessee State, Rudolph competed in the U.S. Olympic track and field trials at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas, where she set a world record in the 200-meter dash that stood for eight years. She also qualified for the 1960 Summer Olympics in the 100-meter dash.