Wilma Rudolph – The Tennessee Tornado


Wilma Rudolph’s rise to become an Olympic champion is one of the most marvelous exploits in the history of sports. It remains and will remain in years to come a source of inspiration for not only athletes but for anyone aspiring to achieve excellence. Here are 10 interesting facts about this African American athlete who defied all odds to become the star of the 1960 Rome Olympics.


#1 She weighed just 4.5 pounds at birth

Wilma Rudolph in 1960
Wilma Glodean Rudolph in 1960

Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born prematurely on June 23, 1940 in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee. She weighed just 4.5 pounds (2 kg) at birth. Her father Ed Rudolph had 14 children by his first marriage and his second marriage to Blanche produced 8 more children of which Wilma was the sixth. Wilma’s father Ed was a railway porter while her mother Blanche worked as a maid to white families.

#2 Her doctor told her she would never be able to walk again

Wilma contracted polio when she was four years old, her left leg became twisted and her doctor said that she would never be able to walk again but her mother said she would. It was difficult to find a hospital to treat a black child with polio and Wilma’s mother took her twice weekly for water and heat therapy to a hospital which was 50 miles away. After two years Wilma was able to walk with a steel brace on her withered left leg.

#3 Through therapy and determination Wilma overcame her physical disabilities

Wilma Rudolph Bronze Statue
Bronze statue of Wilma Rudolph in Clarksville

Wilma was prescribed routine massage therapy. Her mother learned it from the medical staff and taught it to her siblings. After five years of four daily massages Wilma was able to walk without the brace. For another two years she had to wear an orthopedic shoe for support. In 1953, at the age of twelve, Wilma Rudolph was able to shed all handicap and walk like any other child.

#4 She was a fine basketball player

Wilma was a basketball enthusiast. Her sister was already in the basketball team of their school. Wilma earned a position on the team when her father said her sister would join the team only if Wilma was allowed to join too. Wilma became a basketball star, scored 803 points in twenty-five games, a new state record in girls’ basketball and led her team to the state championship. She even set the state record of 49 points in one game.


#5 Wilma Rudolph won a bronze medal at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics

Wilma’s major break came when she was discovered by Tennessee State track and field coach Ed Temple. She joined his summer program at Tennessee State. At the age of 16 Wilma earned a place on the U.S. Olympic track and field team for the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Rudolph won the Olympic bronze medal in the 4×100 m relay at the Olympics, within five years from the day she had first walked.

Edward Stanley Temple
Wilma’s coach Ed Temple


#6 Rudolph is most famous for her three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics

At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Wilma Rudolph won the 100m final in 11.0s breaking the world record by 0.3s. But the record was not awarded to her because of a tailwind of 2.75m. She then won the 200m in 23.2 seconds, a new Olympic record. Her margin of victory was so great that the camera on the finish line didn’t catch any of her rivals. Finally she combined with Tennessee State teammates Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams and Barbara Jones to win the 400-meter relay in 44.5 seconds, setting a world record.

Wilma Rudolph Olympic gold medals
Wilma Rudolph with her three gold medals


#7 Wilma Rudolph was nicknamed Tennessee Tornado

Rudolph was the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympics. Due to her astonishing speed she was hailed throughout the world as “the fastest woman in history”. They said, ‘Don’t blink. You might miss her. And that would be a shame.’ The Italians nicknamed her La Gazzella Nera (“The Black Gazelle”); to the French she was La Perle Noire (“The Black Pearl”); and back home she was called the Tennessee Tornado.

Wilma Rudolph winning the women's 100 meters
Wilma Rudolph finishing first in the women’s 100 meters at the 1960 Rome Olympics


#8 Her welcome home celebration was the first integrated event in her hometown

When Wilma returned from Rome, the Governor of Tennessee Buford Ellington planned to head her welcome home celebration. However Rudolph refused to attend a segregated event. Due to this her homecoming parade and banquet were the first fully integrated municipal events in her hometown Clarksville.

1960 American Olympic Gold Winning Relay Team
Members of the 1960 winning relay team Wilma Rudolph, Lucinda Williams, Barbara Jones & Martha Hudson


#9 Wilma Rudolph married twice and had four children

Rudolph retired from track competition in 1962 at age 22. She completed bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Tennessee State University and worked as a teacher, a track coach and a sports commentator on national television. Rudolph married Willie Ward in 1961 but divorced him 17 months later. In 1963, she married her high school sweetheart Robert Eldridge. They had four children but decided to part ways after 17 years of marriage. Wilma Rudolph died on November 12, 1994 of a brain tumor.

President JFK with Wilma Rudolph
L-R President Kennedy, Wilma Rudolph, Rudolph’s mother Blanche, Vice President Johnson, Coach Ed Temple


#10 Wilma Rudolph was ranked 41st greatest athletes of the 20th century by ESPN

She was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983, honored with the National Sports Award in 1993 and inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994. In 1999, ESPN ranked her as the 41st greatest athletes of the 20th century. The story of Wilma Glodean Rudolph, the woman who fought against all odds to become the fastest woman in the world, has served as a source of inspiration for many athletes. She shared her remarkable story with the world in 1977 with her autobiography, Wilma.

6 thoughts on “Wilma Rudolph – The Tennessee Tornado”

    • Hi Dinah, Wilma Rudolph had 21 siblings with 14 of them being from her father’s first marriage. Unfortunately I am not able to find the names of her siblings from any authoritative site. At best there are a couple of names mentioned in answers.com. Also, it is difficult to find whether she was friends with any famous personality. Although, she did definitely did meet many famous people due to her accomplishments.


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