Skip to main content

Wilma Rudolph Overcame Childhood Polio to Win Olympic Gold Medals in Track and Field

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
Wilma Rudolph with one of her three Olympic gold medals.

Wilma Rudolph with one of her three Olympic gold medals.

Childhood Ailments

Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born on June 23, 1940 in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee. She was a premature birth and weighed only 4.5 pounds. Her father had married twice, and she was the 20th of his 22 children.

Soon after she was born, Rudolph's family moved to Clarksville, Tennessee. She experienced numerous illnesses early in her childhood. They included everything from scarlet fever to pneumonia. At the age of four, she developed infantile paralysis as a result of the poliovirus. Rudolph was able to recover, but it left her left foot and leg with no strength. She spent much of her early life being disabled. Rudolph had to wear a brace on her leg until the age of eight.

Illustration showing Wilma Rudolph with a leg brace.

Illustration showing Wilma Rudolph with a leg brace.

Overcoming Disabilities

For years, Rudolph and her mother made a trip every week from Clarksville to Nashville, Tennessee for treatments designed to get back the use of her legs weakened by polio. At home, Rudolph had regular massage treatment on her legs. This was done a few times a day with her family members. After being able to walk without a leg brace, she had to wear orthopedic shoes to support her foot for the next two years. By the time Wilma had reached the age of 12, she was able to walk without using a leg brace or wearing orthopedic shoes. This is around the time she started testing her abilities when it came to running.

Natural Athletic Ability

Rudolph attended high school at the all-black Burt High School in Clarksville, Tennessee. She was inspired by her sister Yolanda, who played basketball. Rudolph began playing basketball in eighth grade. She soon became a starter on the team. In her sophomore year, she set a girl's basketball scoring record of 803 points in a season. This is also the time she began to run track.

Wilma Rudolph and the Tennessee State University track team

Wilma Rudolph and the Tennessee State University track team

Tennessee State University

Rudolph was noticed by Ed Temple, a coach from Tennessee State University’s track and field team. When he saw her, Temple knew he was seeing a gifted athlete. Rudolph competed in her first major track event at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute. She didn't win, but she loved the experience and was determined to continue running in track events.

At 14, she joined the training program at Tennessee State University that took place in the summer. After the camp, Rudolph competed in nine track events and won all of them. She then went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and participated in the Amateur Athletic Union track program.

In high school, she was given permission to regularly train at Tennessee State University. Rudolph was also able to compete in amateur athletic events with the university's girls' track team.

Summer Olympics of 1956

Rudolph qualified to participate in the 1956 Olympics, in Melbourne, Australia. She was 16 years old and a high school junior. In Seattle, Washington, she qualified to compete in the 200-meter individual event for track and field.

Rudolph was the youngest member of the U.S. Olympic team. Unfortunately, she lost in the preliminary heat of the 200-meter race. She was also part of the U.S 400-meter relay track team. The team was able to win a bronze medal.

After the games, Rudolph told friends and family she had an incredible experience participating in the Olympics. Showing her bronze medal to family and high school classmates, she told them that she was determined to run in the 1960 Summer Olympics and win a gold medal.

Wilma Rudolph running during Olympics

Wilma Rudolph running during Olympics

Summer Olympics of 1960

The Summer Olympic games of 1960 were held in Rome, Italy. By this time, Rudolph was a sophomore at Tennessee State University. She ran in the Olympic trials for the U.S. track and field team at Abilene Christian University. She ran well enough to qualify to compete in the Olympics. During the trials, Rudolph set a world record in the 200-meter dash.

Wilma Rudolph showing her three Olympic gold medals.

Wilma Rudolph showing her three Olympic gold medals.

Olympic Gold Medals

Rudolph participated in three track and field events during the 1960 Summer Olympics. They were the 100-meter and 200-meter sprints, as well as the 400-meter relay. In each of these events, Rudolph won a gold medal, making her the first woman to win three gold medals during a single Olympics.

Rudolph set an Olympic record when she won the 200-meter dash. She was also part of the 400-meter relay team that set a world record. Rudolph became the first woman to win a gold medal in the 100-meter event since the 1936 Olympic games. These accomplishments made her one of the most recognized and popular athletes of the 1960 Olympic games. Rudolph quickly became an internationally recognized athlete for her impressive achievements.

Wilma Rudolph with President John F. Kennedy.

Wilma Rudolph with President John F. Kennedy.

After the Olympics

Rudolph's popularity continued after the 1960 Olympic games. She made guest appearances on a variety of television programs, including The Ed Sullivan Show. Numerous magazine and newspaper articles were written about her. In both 1960 and 1961, Rudolph was awarded the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year Award.

At the age of 22, she officially retired from participating in track competition. Rudolph went back to being a student at Tennessee State University and earned a bachelor's degree in elementary education. In 1963, she married Robert Eldridge. They had four children but divorced after being married for 17 years.

Career as a Teacher and Coach

After being a successful athlete, Rudolph had a career in teaching and coaching. She worked for a number of years as a grade school teacher at Cobb Elementary School, where she had been a student when she was young. She also coached track at Burt High School, where her athletic talent had been discovered years earlier when she was a student.


Rudolph was given the James E. Sullivan Award, the Babe Didrikson Zaharis Award for being the top amateur athlete in the United States, and the National Sports Award.

She was also inducted into many sports halls of fame, including the Black Sports Hall of Fame, National Black Sports and Entertainment Hall of Fame, U.S. National Track and Field Hall of Fame, National Women's Hall of Fame, and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

Wilma Rudolph's grave marker

Wilma Rudolph's grave marker

Death of a Legend

Rudolph was diagnosed with brain cancer in July of 1994. Shortly after this, she was also diagnosed with throat cancer. Her health continued to fail after these diagnoses, and she passed away on November 12, 1994, at her home. She was surrounded by family and friends.

Statue of Wilma Rudolph in Clarksville, Tennessee

Statue of Wilma Rudolph in Clarksville, Tennessee

An Inspiration

Wilma Rudolph will always be remembered as one of the most inspirational athletes in history. She is known for saying that winning is great, but if someone wants to succeed at something, they need to learn how to lose. Rudolph explained that nobody wins all the time. A good athlete has to get past crushing defeats to win again. This will show the world they're a true champion. Her story of overcoming childhood disabilities to win Olympic gold medals will continue to inspire athletes for generations.

© 2018 Readmikenow


Readmikenow (author) on December 10, 2018:

FlourishAnyway Thanks. My wife ran track in High School and found Wilma Rudolph to be very inspirational. I imagine she has inspired quite a few hopeful track and field athletes.

FlourishAnyway from USA on December 10, 2018:

What remarkable achievements, particularly considering the strikes she had against her. I'm glad you profiled her determination and accomplishments. It's sad that her life was cut short, but she is certainly an inspiration.

Readmikenow (author) on May 09, 2018:

Thanks. She was quite an inspiration.

hehehhe on May 09, 2018:

thx for the info

Readmikenow (author) on April 30, 2018:

Dora, thanks for taking the time to read it. I agree with you. The more I read about Wilma Rudolph the more impressed I became with her. Her teachers and coaches did play a key role in her success.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on April 30, 2018:

Thanks for writing about the inspirational life and triumphs of Wilma Rudolph. What a credit to Ed Temple, to teachers and coaches like him to take time to notice and enrich lives.

Readmikenow (author) on April 27, 2018:

Larry, yeah, she was an incredible person.

Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on April 27, 2018:

I was familiar with the name but never knew Miss Rudolph had such a harrowing story.

Inspiring read.

Readmikenow (author) on April 27, 2018:

Mary, you're right. What this person overcame would have crushed many of us.

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on April 27, 2018:

What a touching story of going beyond our own disabilities to win. Many times, we use disabilities as crutches and fall into the victim mentality failing to realize that so much of success depends on us.