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Wilma Rudolph, Olympic Athlete

Updated on February 9, 2014

Wilma Rudolph, the "Tennessee Tornado"

Wilma Rudolph, the "Tennessee Tornado," was the first American woman to win three gold medals in Track and Field at the Olympics when she competed in Rome in 1960. I was only four when she accomplished this amazing feat, so I didn't know who she was when we ended up living in the same town in Tennessee more than a dozen years later. Although we lived just down the street from her for at least a year (until we moved) and although my brother played with her son, I never met her. But the experience did inspire me to read her autobiography (which was excellent!) and to create this lens in her memory.

(Image of Wilma Rudolph from Wikipedia

wilma rudolph stamp
wilma rudolph stamp

A Brief Biography of Wilma Rudolph

Olympic athlete and women's rights pioneer

Wilma Rudolph (June 23, 1940 - November 12, 1994) was an American runner who competed in the 1956 and 1960 Olympics, winning . Rudolph was considered the fastest woman in the world in the 1960s and competed in two Olympic Games, in 1956 and in 1960, winning three gold medals and a bronze medal.

Rudolph was born in 1940 and was the 20th of 22 children. When she was four, she contracted polio and had to wear a brace on her left leg. She wore the brace until she was nine years old and was fitted with an orthopedic shoe that she had to wear for another two years. She also underwent surgery for her leg.

But by the time she was 12, Rudolph was free of her handicap and determined to become a basketball player like her older sister. She played on her high school team, becoming a star player and taking her team to the state championship. It was while she was playing basketball that Rudolph was scouted by Tennessee State track and field coach Ed Temple. She joined the summer program at Tennessee State and raced with the team for two years. By the time she was 16, she had earned a place on the 1956 US Olympic track and field team. She won a bronze medal in Melbourne in the 4 x 100m relay.

Four years later, Rudolph again made the Olympic team and made history. In the 1960 Rom Olympics, Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games. She was dubbed "The Tennessee Tornado" and widely regarded as the fastest woman on earth.

When she returned home to Clarksville, Tennessee, Rudolph asked to have an integrated celebration. Her homecoming parade and banquet were the first fully integrated municipal events in the history of the city.

After the Olympics, Rudolph returned to Tennessee State to earn a bachelor's degree in elementary education. She later married her high school sweetheart, became an elementary school teacher and coached track at her alma mater, Burt High School. She also became a sports commentator on national television. She was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983 and into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1994.

In July 1994, Rudolph was diagnosed with brain cancer, and she died later that year at her home in Nashville, Tennessee. She has continued to be honored after her death in a variety of ways, including a US postage stamp featuring her image that was released in 2004.

Wilma DVD - Starring Shirley Jo Finney and Cicely Tyson


Product description:s At the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Wilma Rudolph stunned the world by becoming the first woman to win 3 consecutive gold medals in Track & Field. But the most amazing part of this true story is that Wilma (Shirley Jo Finney) was afflicted by the crippling disease polio, a disease she conquered on her way to becoming one of America's greatest athletes. The story begins with Wilma's childhood in rural Tennessee, when her parents first learn she had contracted this horrendous disease. Her mother (Cicely Tyson) does everything in her power to bolster Wilma's self confidence and help her triumph over the handicap. Her ceaseless determination pays off as Wilma develops her strength, speed and agility. But her greatest triumph comes at the 1960 Olympics where her astounding physical abilities and determination make her the darling of the Games.


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    • MargoPArrowsmith profile image


      9 years ago

      Merry Christmas, Happy New Year and Wonderful holidays to everyone who honors women in athletes, especially, you for making a lens to do it!

    • MargoPArrowsmith profile image


      10 years ago

      I am so thrilled to have this lens about this great women, in the group Honoring Women in Sports

      It will be featured!

    • MargoPArrowsmith profile image


      10 years ago

      So important that this pioneer isn't forgotten, that you so much for doing this.

      I would love to see this in my group Honoring Women in Sports


    • JohannDog profile image

      Johann The Dog 

      10 years ago from Northeast Georgia

      My Mum met Wilma once when she worked for a sponsor of the Games. She was really nice! Interesting info.

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      Three gold medals in one event! wow. 5-stars from me.


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