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Black History Month: Celebrating the Legacy of Wilma Rudolph

February is Black History Month in the United States, and to celebrate our nation’s diversity, I have been posting short biographies of African-Americans. Today I wanted to share a little bit about Wilma Rudolph and her short, but impressive career in Track & Field that would inspire a generation of young girls to pursue their athletic dreams. 

Wilma Rudolph was born prematurely into a family that already had twenty children by the time of her arrival in 1940. To further complicate things, Rudolph caught infantile paralysis (caused by the polio virus) early on in her youth. While she eventually recovered, she was required to wear a brace on her left leg that had become twisted as a result. Her childhood consisted of monthly trips between her hometown and Nashville, TN in order to treat her leg.

Rudolph’s short-lived career began at the age of twelve when she was finally able to cast off her brace and run like the other children. Following in the footsteps of her older sister, Rudolph joined the basketball team upon entering high school, eventually setting records for scoring and leading her team to the state title.

Her natural athletic abilities were recognized by Edward Temple, the Tennessee State University track and field coach at the time. While Rudolph had some experience on the high school track team, mostly to keep busy between basketball seasons, Temple recognized the ability to sculpt the raw athletic talent within her. While still in high school, Rudolph earned a spot on the 1956 US Olympic team, eventually coming home with a bronze medal in the 4 x 100 meters relay.

However, it was not until her years at Tennessee State where she became a household name. Rudolph would combine to break the world record in the 4 x 100 meters relay with her college teammates, setting the mark at 44.5 seconds. During the 1960 Olympics in Rome the previous summer before, Rudolph went on to win three gold medals, becoming the first African-American woman to accomplish such a feat at the time.

Rudolph became a sports superstar and the fasted woman of her time, celebrated around the world for her achievements. Upon returning home from the Olympics, she made numerous appearances on television and received several honors including being named the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year.

While Rudolph retired from track just a few years later in her mid-twenties, her talents inspired a generation of children, especially young girls, to pursuit their athletic dreams. Her legacy can be seen in the popularity of track and field in the United States today.

For more information on Wilma Rudolph, please visit this site for more details and a list of further resources.