Wilma Rudolph competes in the 100m final at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Jackie Joyner-Kersee had to do book reports when she was in elementary school, so she picked up a biography about former American sprinter Wilma Rudolph.
As a kid, Joyner-Kersee knew a little bit about Rudolph’s story. She had heard her track and field coaches in East St. Louis, Illinois, talk about how Rudolph had overcome polio to win three gold medals at the Olympic Games Rome 1960 — two years before Joyner-Kersee was born.
The more she read, the more Joyner-Kersee learned about the adversity Rudolph faced after returning home from the Olympics as a national hero. Rudolph, once considered the fastest woman in the world, couldn’t escape racism while living in Tennessee during the Civil Rights Movement.
“She’s embraced by everyone in the world, but then when you go back to your own hometown, you can’t eat at the counter because of the color of your skin,” Joyner-Kersee told TeamUSA.org. “But what I loved about her was her spirit and that she wasn’t bitter. I just learned so much from her.”
Joyner-Kersee followed in Rudolph’s footsteps and battled her own health issues — asthma in her case — to become one of the greatest American athletes of all time. Rudolph eventually became a close friend and mentor, watching Joyner-Kersee earn six Olympic medals and three golds in the heptathlon and the long jump during the 1980s and ’90s.
This week marks the beginning of the 60th anniversary of the 1960 Olympics. It comes as protests against racial injustice continue through the United States.
Rudolph, who died at age 54 in 1994 from a brain tumor, continues to stand as an inspiration to a new generation of Black female athletes. She’s still revered more than a half-century after she became the first American woman to win three gold medals at an Olympics.
“If you bring it all together and just think about how strong this person had to be to deal with a lot of things that (she did), she paved the way and helped make it, I don’t want to say it’s easy on us, (but) opened the eyes for so many of us,” said Joyner-Kersee, who received the inaugural Wilma Rudolph Courage Award from the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1996. “The opportunities that we are blessed with today are because of so many women like Wilma that came before us.”
Rudolph’s unlikely rise to stardom was made into a TV movie in 1977. Born prematurely as the 20th of 22 children, she overcame double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio, though the latter caused her to lose the use of her left leg.
It wasn’t until she was 11 that Rudolph was able to walk without a brace or orthopedic shoe, but once she could walk on her own she quickly became a star basketball player and sprinter. Her natural talent caught the eye of Ed Temple, the legendary track coach at Tennessee State University, and at age 16 she was making her Olympic debut at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, where she won a bronze medal in the 4x100.
She got another chance to run at an Olympics for Temple when he was selected to coach the U.S. women’s track team at the 1960 Games.
Despite twisting her ankle the day before the 100-meter, Rudolph tied the world record with a time of 11.3 seconds in her Olympic semifinal race. She won the gold in 11.0 seconds, but she wasn’t credited with breaking the world record because her time was too wind-aided.
Rudolph wasn’t done, though, setting an Olympic record of 23.2 seconds in the 200-meter heats before winning the gold medal in 24.0 against a stiff headwind. Then she helped set a world record when the U.S. women’s 4x100 team, made up of all Tennessee State runners, crossed the finish line in 44.4 seconds during a heat.
The Americans nearly matched their time in the finals despite a poor baton pass, winning gold in 44.5 seconds.
“Her Rome triple-gold medal performance was definitely pioneering since it was a historical first. That her efforts came in the first internationally televised Olympic Games didn’t hurt since viewers across the USA saw her victories,” said Glen McMicken, a statistician for USA Track & Field. “It established her as a star in the minds of many, and she was able to build on that in some ways to help advance causes outside the sporting arena.”
Unable to profit on her success during a time when the sport was limited to amateurs, however, Rudolph retired from racing in 1962, while still at peak abilities. She went on to work as a second-grade teacher and high school basketball and track coach, among other roles.
“For Rudolph, her Rome achievements faded pretty quickly in many ways,” McMicken said. “Temple noted in an interview after the Games that Rudolph didn’t have many opportunities available, and that was true for most female athletes in that era. She also faced the prospect of racial hatred and nicknames that emphasized her color instead of her prowess.”
As a TV sports commentator for the 1984 Los Angeles Games, Rudolph watched Joyner-Kersee earn silver in the heptathlon at her first Olympics. They eventually formed such a close bond that Joyner-Kersee regularly called Rudolph at her home to get advice.
Rudolph taught Joyner-Kersee to speak up, say no to people and use her voice to advocate for social change. She also told Joyner-Kersee, “Don’t let a race define you. Who you are should define who you will continue to be and go on to become.”
“She was telling me about all these things, and all I’m thinking about is running, jumping and throwing, and she’d go, ‘No, this is just the beginning of your career. Awards like this are going to continue to come your way,’” Joyner-Kersee said. “I just truly admired her, and it’s unfortunate that she left us too soon.”