The Lioness Project: Wilma Rudolph

They called her the Tornado. La Gazella Nera. La Perle Noire. The Fastest Woman on Earth. But this world-record setting Olympic Hall-of-Famer started out as a little black girl with polio in the segregated South.

“The doctor told me I would never walk again.
My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”
—Wilma Rudolph


Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph was born in 1940 near Clarksville, TN, the twentieth of twenty-two children from her father’s two marriages. She was premature, weighing only 4.5 pounds, and as a small child suffered from scarlet fever, pneumonia, and polio, which resulted in the paralysis of her left leg and foot when she was four years old.

Though her doctors said that Wilma would probably never walk, her mother, who worked as a maid six days a week, wouldn’t give up.  Because of segregation, there was not adequate medical care for African Americans in Clarksville, so every week she took Wilma on a 50-mile bus trip to a hospital in Nashville, and her family members learned to give her orthopedic massage four times a day. Their efforts paid off: by the time she was twelve, Wilma could walk all on her own.

When she was in the eighth grade, her sister, who played high school basketball, helped get her onto the team. She was so fast that the other players called her Skeeter, and she caught the eye of Ed Temple, the track and field coach at Tennessee State.  Temple invited her to train with him, and two years later, she qualified for the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia—the youngest member of that year’s US Olympic team.

She won a bronze medal in the 4 x 100 meter relay.

Let’s just step back a moment to appreciate this fully. Just four years after regaining the use of her polio-stricken legs, sixteen-year-old Wilma Rudolph won an Olympic medal for running.

At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, she took the gold in the 100- and 200- meter dash and the 4 x 100 m relay, becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympiad. Her 200-meter dash time of 23.2 seconds set an Olympic record, and she was hailed as “the fastest woman on Earth.”

Clarksville was eager to celebrate the homecoming of their international star athlete—but Wilma insisted that the event be racially integrated. It was the first integrated municipal event in the Clarksville’s history.

Wilma went on to set more records and win more titles, but decided to retire in 1962, at the peak of her career. She returned to complete her college education at Tennessee State, and went to West Africa as a goodwill ambassador for the US State Department. She taught, participated in civil rights protests, and worked with initiatives to train young athletes and support athletics for minority children.

In 1994, at the age of 54, Wilma Rudolph was diagnosed with cancer. She passed away five months later, leaving behind her four children, eight grandchildren, and an enduring legacy of breaking barriers for women, for African Americans, and for the disabled and chronically ill. She is considered to be one of the greatest women athletes in United States history, and was ranked by ESPN as one of the twentieth century’s greatest athletes (of any gender).