History Historical Badasses

How my great-aunt Wilma Rudolph changed the world

At five feet and eleven inches, I’m the tallest in my immediate family and it’s an aspect of my self-esteem that I constantly struggle with. But when I feel down about my lengthy stature, I remember where it comes from. 

In 1960, my 5’11” great-aunt, Wilma Rudolph, changed the world as the first woman in Olympian history to win three track-and-field gold medals in a single Olympic game. She was known as “the fastest woman in the world” and in 1983, she was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame

It wasn’t always gold medals and triumphs. Raised in poverty, Rudolph was born prematurely as the 20th child out of 22 siblings (yes, 22.) As a kid, she suffered from double pneumonia and scarlet fever that almost killed her, and (ironically, considering her career as a runner), had polio in her left leg that paralyzed her. Doctors told her that she would never be able to walk, and in her autobiography, Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph, she discussed feeling ashamed because of her disabilities.

Rudolph wrote that, when playing with other children, “some of them would start teasing me and calling me ‘cripple’… and they would try to make me cry.”

Through consistent physical therapy, support from her parents, and her unshakable Christian faith, Rudolph began playing basketball at school without a leg brace or an orthopedic shoe by the time she was thirteen years old. 

Despite her new ability to walk and play sports, she would still have to spend a lifetime experiencing racism and sexism. My great aunt grew up in the segregated South in Clarksville, Tennessee, where most of my family is from. She was often told to stop playing sports over the concern that her femininity was exclusive to being an athlete. 

“You couldn’t be a lady and a good athlete at the same time,” she wrote in her autobiography. “There was a lot of talk about ‘playing sports will give you muscles, and you’ll look just like a man.'” 

Thanks to her skills in basketball, Rudolph was scouted by Ed Temple to join the historically Black Tennessee State University’s (TSU) famous group of women runners, the Tigerbelles

The all-Black Tigerbelles weren’t afforded the same luxuries as other athletes. When traveling to competitions, the runners would have to pack their own meals because segregation laws prevented them from being served in restaurants. Instead of being allowed to ride buses, the entire team would often be stuffed into one or two cars.

Despite the constant racism and sexism, my great-aunt eventually qualified for the 1956 Olympic Games when she was only 16-years-old. She was the youngest member of the United States track-and-field team at the time. At her first Olympics, Rudolph’s speed won her a bronze medal in the 400-meter relay. Following her first win, she returned to Tennessee where she studied education at TSU and plunged into training for the next Olympics.

My great-aunt was one of the most popular athletes of her time. In the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, she won gold medals in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and the relay. 

Many watched and celebrated her, as this was the first Olympics to ever be televised in America. In Italy, she was referred to as “La Gazella Nera” or in English “The Black Gazelle”. In French, she was praised as “La Perle Noire” or “The Black Pearl”. She was invited to meet the Pope at the Vatican and even met President John F. Kennedy. In 1963, she was selected to represent the U.S. State Department as a Goodwill Ambassador at the Games of Friendship in Senegal.

[Image description: Wilma Rudolph sitting next to President John F. Kennedy on a visit to the White House.] Via
[Image description: Wilma Rudolph sitting next to President John F. Kennedy on a visit to the White House.] Via
Her history-making journey doesn’t end here. When she returned back home to Clarksville, Rudolph refused to attend any celebrations that were segregated. This led to the town’s first non-segregated homecoming parade and banquet

Although she retired from track and field after breaking records, Rudolph later put her education degree to use and became a schoolteacher and running coach. She created a nonprofit organization that provided underprivileged youth athletes more opportunities, paving the way for Black pride in all career fields. Rudolph continued to make strides until 1994; she passed away from brain cancer at age 54 before I was born and had the chance to meet her.

Before she died, she wrote, “I would be very sad if I was only remembered as Wilma Rudolph, the great sprinter. To me, my legacy is to the youth of America to let them know they can be anything they want to be.”

Want to know more about Rudolph’s phenomenal legacy? Click here to read more about her life. 

I am so proud to be related to her. Although I didn’t use my long legs that I inherited from her for sports, I have definitely applied my great-aunt’s tenacity and perseverance as inspiration throughout my life. I look at my height as a reflection of her and am constantly reminded not to let adversity keep me from my dreams.

There is no doubt that Wilma Rudolph changed the world, and knowing that her spirit breathes within me only reminds me that one day, so too will I.

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By Tori B. Powell

Tori B. Powell is a culture and entertainment writer with a deep love for indie tunes, vegetarian food, books, and reality television.