This Day In History: June 23rd
“Don’t blink or you’ll miss her,” was a popular joke amongst fans attending track and field events featuring Olympic medalist, Wilma Rudolph. Despite facing debilitating illnesses during childhood such as polio and scarlet fever, Rudolph excelled to become a highly celebrated athlete.
Rudolph was born prematurely on June 23, 1940, in St. Bethlehem (modern-day Clarksville), Tennessee. Much of her early childhood was spent being confined by metal leg braces and battling illnesses. She was just one of her father’s 22 children, which allowed her to have constant supervision and support. Rudolph was determined to free herself of the leg braces, and by her pre-teenage years, she was outside playing basketball with the other children.
While in high school, Rudolph became a star basketball player, once even earning 49-points in one game. However, after a chance encounter with a college coach, Rudolph decided to pursue track and field. She practiced with the college students at Tennessee State and was able to compete at a collegiate level as a high-schooler.
She first competed in the 1956 Olympics and won a prize before making history in the 1960 Olympics held in Rome. She won three gold medals and became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at the same Olympic game. Rudolph earned the title “fastest woman in the world,” even setting a new world record.
Rudolph used her newfound recognition and platform to advocate for social change. After her remarkable achievements at the Olympics, she refused to attend her homecoming parade if it was not integrated. The parade and banquet were the first integrated events in her hometown. Although she became a track superstar, Rudolph retired from the sport in 1962.
After retiring, Rudolph completed her degree at Tennessee State and started a career in education. In the years that followed she entered the Black Athletes Hall of Fame (1973), the National Track and Field Hall of Fame (1974), the Women’s Sports Hall of Fame (1980) and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame (1983). She also published Wilma Rudolph; A Biography in 1977, and it later turned into a film by NBC. Wilma Rudolph died on November 12, 1994.