Breaking Barriers: Wilma Rudolph: 3 Golds in Rome – It has been a long time coming, but the 2020 Olympic Games are upon us. This is a perfect time to look back at Summer Olympic greats. Collectors, new and old, are sure to get on the nostalgia bandwagon as we wait to see who the next breakout names will be. It’s intriguing to think that by the end of the summer, the world will recognize and be celebrating names that many of us haven’t heard yet.
One standout of the past is Wilma Rudolph, who at the age of 20, was the first American woman to win three track and field Gold medals in a single Olympiad. In the 1960 Rome Games she won the 100-meter, the 200-meter, and anchored the winning 4×100-meter relay. After those wins, she was touted as the fastest woman in history. Her speed and the 1960 Games being televised world-wide made her an instant household name.
Wilma Rudolph didn’t come to athletics easily. In her first Olympic appearance in 1956, she had only had the ability to run for five years. As a small child, she contracted polio and lost the use of her left leg and foot. Her doctor said she would never walk, but her family thought otherwise. Finding care and therapy for an African-American child in Tennessee in 1944 was difficult, but her mother found treatment nearly 50 miles away in Nashville. She would take Wilma weekly for two years.
At home, Wilma’s parents and several of her 21 siblings massaged her leg many times a day to aid in her recovery. By the age of 12, Wilma was able to do more than walk. She was able to participate in athletics without the aid of a brace or an orthopedic shoe. Her first sport was basketball. She excelled and got the notice of track coach Ed Temple of Tennessee State. From the age of 14, until she retired at 22, Ed Temple would be her coach through college and the Olympic Games.
In 1956, at the age of 16, Wilma qualified as the youngest runner for the US Women’s Team in the Melbourne Games. She would run the 200-meter individual event and the third leg of the 4×100-meter relay. She was defeated in the 200 in prelims, but the relay team went on to claim Bronze. After showing her medal to her classmates back home, she decided she wanted to try for Gold in Rome. She finished high school, and just before entering TSU, she gave birth to her first child. While mothers hadn’t typically been allowed on athletic teams, an exception was made for Rudolph.
At the Olympic trials in 1960, Rudolph set a world record in the 200-meter sprint that would hold for 8 years. She qualified for the team and ran in three events in Rome. The relay consisted of TSU teammates, the Tigerbelles, and as the anchor, Rudolph was able to take the lead in the final moments.
Rudolph was an instant icon and became the most recognizable black woman in the US and around the world. She would go on a post-games tour throughout Europe and be invited to compete at several prestigious meets over the next two years, including meets that had previously excluded women. When Rudolph returned to Clarksville, Tennessee after the Rome Games, she insisted that her homecoming parade and banquet be fully integrated. It was the first fully integrated event to be held in the city.
Rudolph retired after winning the 100-meter and 4×100-meter relay races at a US-Soviet meet at Stanford University in 1962. She chose to leave the sport while she was still at the top, just as Jesse Owens had done in 1936.
As you can see throughout this article, Rudolph’s legacy has been commemorated in several card sets over the years. She is an Olympian worth adding to any PC.
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