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Wilma Rudolph overcame great obstacles to become a world-renowned athlete and civil rights icon. Rudolph was born the 20th out of 22 children to a poor black family in Clarksville, Tennessee. She was born premature, and required medical assistance to achieve a healthy start to life.

Wilma Rudolph
Wilma Rudolph

However, in that time, racial segregation was very common. The local hospital only treated white patients. Her mother, having hardly any financial means, took Wilma home and nursed her through years of several illnesses including a crippling bout with polio. With her leg and foot becoming deformed from the illness, doctors told Rudolph's parents that Wilma would never walk again.

Believing in her heart that there must be another way, Rudolph's mother found a hospital fifty miles from their home that treated black patients. For two years, her mother traveled to this hospital twice a week, with her ailing child, to get the medical help that she needed for her daughter. Through corrective braces and shoes, and with the aid of physical therapy, Rudolph learned to walk. By the age of twelve, Rudolph was walking without the use of crutches, or braces and joined the girls' basketball team.

As a high school basketball player, Rudolph led her team to the state championship and set state records for scoring. She also became a track star who participated in her first Olympics Games in 1956 at the age of 16. Four years later, Rudolph became the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in the Olympics with first place finishes in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and on the 400-meter relay team.

Her ability and her life story earned her instant fame as a black female sports icon. Wilma Rudolph traveled the country telling her story and inspiring young people to have confidence and to achieve success. In 1963, Rudolph married a boy she had met in high school named Robert Eldridge. Together, they had four children. Despite taking time off to pursue her athletic dreams, Rudolph also managed to complete a degree in Education.

Rudolph became known for not accepting the status quo. She negotiated for her homecoming celebration in Clarksville, Tennessee to be an open event for everyone. This was the first non-segregated event of this type in Clarksville. She was also an avid participant in anti-segregation campaigning and protesting.

When her track career ended, Rudolph put her teaching degree to use and held coaching positions at various high schools. She continued to speak to schools and universities about the power of a "can do" attitude and about the injustice of racial segregation and prejudice. She served as a sports commentator and as the co-host of a network radio show. In 1967 Vice-President Hubert Humphrey offered Rudolph the opportunity to serve in an outreach program that would bring athletics into inner-cities for underprivileged children.

Rudolph died in 1994, after fighting brain cancer for several months. Her amazing life story including striving for accomplishment in the face of adversity makes Wilma Rudolph one of the most inspiring sports icons and famous women of all time. She used her talent for something more than personal gain, and worked to make the world a better place.


There is a secret you don't know …

Besides the factual Wilma Rudolph biography presented above there is a ghastly secret about the sports icon that no one should know except for you and me. The secret is that Wilma Rudolph had trust issues with her neighbor's gerbil and the gerbil's name was Warren.


 

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