Wilma Rudolph Biography Essay

Wilma Rudolph

Track Star
Born in 1940 - Died in 1994

When Wilma Rudolph was four years old, she had a disease called polio which causes people to be crippled and unable to walk. To make matters worse, her family was poor and could not afford good medical care. She was from a large family. She was the 20th child of 22 children. Her father was a railroad porterand her mother was a maid.

Her mother decided she would do everything she could to help Wilma to walk again. The doctors had said she would not be able to walk. She took her every week on a long bus trip to a hospital to receive therapy. It didn't help, but the doctors said she needed to give Wilma a massage every day by rubbing her legs. She taught the brothers and sisters how to do it, and they also rubbed her legs four times a day.

By the time she was 8, she could walk with a leg brace. After that, she used a high-topped shoe to support her foot. She played basketball with her brothers every day.

Three years later, her mother came home to find her playing basketball by herself bare-footed. She didn't even have to use the special shoe.

A track coach encouraged her to start running. She ran so well that during her senior year in high school, she qualified for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. She won a bronze medal in the women's 400-meter relay.

In 1959, she qualified for the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome by setting a world's record in the 200-meter race. At the Olympics that year she won two gold medals; one for the 100-meter race and one for the 200-meter race.

Then she sprained her ankle, but she ignored the pain and helped her team to win another gold medal for the 400-meter relay! In the picture above you see the three gold medals she won at the Rome Olympics.

She retired from running when she was 22 years old, but she went on to coach women's track teams and encourage young people.

Wilma thought God had a greater purpose for her than to win three gold medals. She started the Wilma Rudolph Foundation to help children learn about discipline and hard work.

She died of brain cancer in 1994. Even though she is no longer alive, her influence still lives on in the lives of many young people who look up to her.

This biography by Patsy Stevens, a retired teacher, was written in 2001.

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From Word Central's Student Dictionary
by Merriam - Webster
(Pronunciation note: the schwa sound is shown by ə)

polio (poliomyelitis)

Pronunciation: 'pO-lE-'O-'mI-ə-'lIt-əs
Function: noun
: an infectious virus disease marked by inflammation of nerve cells in the spinal cord
accompanied by fever and often paralysis and wasting of muscles,
called also infantile paralysis


Pronunciation: 'pOrt-ər
Function: noun
1 : a person who carries baggage (as at a hotel)
2 : a railroad employee who waits on passengers....


Pronunciation: 'ther-ə-pE
Function: noun
: the treatment of disease especially by massage, exercise, water, or heat


Pronunciation: mə-'sahzh, - 'sahj
Function: noun
: treatment (as of the body) by rubbing, stroking, kneading, or tapping

Olympic Games

Function: noun plural
: a series of international athletic contests held in a different country once every four years

Research Links

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Women in History

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Encyclopedia of World Biography

Wilma Unlimited
Wilma Rudolph lesson plan from Kim's Korner

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Wilma Rudolph Chronology

My Hero, Wilma Rudolph

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Wilma Rudolph
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Her life story was so dramatic that in 1977 it became a two-hour prime-time television movie. The movie was written, produced and directed by her friend Bud Greenspan, the Olympic historian.

"She was the Jesse Owens of women's track and field, and like Jesse, she changed the sport for all time," he said. "She became the benchmark for little black girls to aspire."

Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born on June 23, 1940, in the St. Bethlehem section of Clarksville, Tenn., 45 miles north of Nashville, and grew up in Clarksville. She was the 20th of 22 children of Ed Rudolph, a railroad porter, from two marriages. Her mother, Blanche, was a domestic.

The child weighed four and a half pounds at birth. At age 4, she contracted double pneumonia and scarlet fever simultaneously and almost died. The illnesses left her left leg paralyzed, and once a week, on her mother's day off, the mother made a 90-mile round trip with her to Nashville for heat and water treatment on the leg.

At 6, she started to hop on one leg. At 8, she started to walk with a leg brace. Later, an orthopedic shoe replaced the brace. One day, when she was 11, her mother found her playing basketball in her bare feet. That was the end of the special shoe and the beginning of a fabled sports career.

"My father pushed me to become competitive," she wrote in a 1978 autobiography, "Wilma." "With so many children, when you did something with one, you always had another along. He felt that sports would help me overcome the problems."

At 13, she went out for the high school basketball team and twice made the all-state team. She would sometimes skip school to run on a track across the street. Her talent intrigued Ed Temple, the renowned coach at Tennessee State University in Nashville, and at his invitation she attended his summer track camps.

In 1956, a 16-year-old stringbean of 89 pounds, she ran in the Melbourne Olympics. To her dismay, she was eliminated in the 200-meter heats. She did win a bronze medal in the 400-meter relay.

Then she returned to high school. When she graduated, Temple gave her an athletic scholarship at Tennessee State. Bulked up to 130 pounds, she made the 1960 Olympic team. Temple was the women's coach.

The day before the 100 meters in the Rome Olympics, she stepped into a hole in the infield of the practice track and twisted an ankle. It became swollen and discolored. The next day, the ankle held up, and with her fluid running style she won her semifinal in 11.3 seconds, equaling the world record. She won the final easily in 11.0 seconds, but the following wind of 6.15 miles an hour (the allowable limit is 4.47) precluded recognition as a world record.

In the 200 meters, she set an Olympic record of 23.2 seconds in the heats and won the final easily in 24.0 seconds into a stiff wind. In the 400-meter relay, with college teammates running the first three legs, she helped set a world record of 44.4 seconds in a heat. In the final, after a bad baton pass to her, she turned a two-yard deficit into a three-yard victory in 44.5 seconds.

"After the playing of 'The Star-Spangled Banner,' " she wrote in her autobiography, "I came away from the victory stand and I was mobbed. People were jumping all over me, putting microphones into my face, pounding my back, and I couldn't believe it."

She returned to college and earned a degree in education in 1961. She was voted the 1961 Sullivan Award as America's outstanding amateur athlete, male or female.

But there was no money for amateurs then and no professional track, so she set out to make a living. She taught second grade and coached high school basketball and track in Tennessee, all for $400 a month. Then she ran a community center in Indiana for $600 a month.

She last raced in 1962. She quit, she said, because "I couldn't top what I did, so I'll be remembered for when I was at my best."

In time, she became a spokeswoman for a movie studio, a baking company and other businesses. At DePauw University in Indiana, she coached briefly and recruited minority-group students. She established the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, working with youngsters and sending tutors to schools with books on American heros.

"If I have anything to leave," she said, "the foundation is my legacy."

She was voted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the Helms Hall of Fame, the Women's Sports Foundation Hall of Fame and the Black Athletes Hall of Fame. In 1988, Tennessee State named an indoor track in her honor. In 1990, she became the first woman to receive the National Collegiate Athletic Association's Silver Anniversary Award, even though she competed before the N.C.A.A. sponsored women's championships in any sport.

Once, when she was asked how certain other runners compared with her, she declined to answer. "I'm selfish," she said. "I think I was in a class all by myself."

She married William Ward in 1961 and was divorced the next year. In 1963, she married Robert Eldridge, whom she had known since second grade. They were divorced in 1976.

Her father died in 1961 and her mother died in May. She is survived by her four children with Mr. Eldridge -- daughters Yolanda Jones and Djuana Bowers and sons Robert and Xurry -- five sisters and two brothers, and seven grandchildren.

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An obituary of Wilma Rudolph on Nov. 13, as well as a Sports of The Times column that day, misstated her accomplishment in winning three gold medals in track and field at the 1960 Olympics in Rome. She was the first American woman to win three or more medals in one Olympics, not the first woman; Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands won four gold medals at the 1948 Games in London.

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