Timeline Description: Wilma Rudolph became known as the fastest woman in the world after winning 3 gold medals for track and field at the 1960 Olympic games in Rome, Italy. Her fame helped break racial barriers for African Americans and helped to show that women could do well in competitive sports.
|June 23, 1940||Wilma is born.
Wilma Goldean Rudolph is born on June 23, 1940 in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee. Born two months ahead of time and weighing only 4 ½ pounds, Wilma is not expected to live. She survives, but is a sickly child, developing double pneumonia and then scarlet fever when she is four.
|1944||Wilma develops polio (1944 - 1952).
Wilma's left leg becomes paralyzed from polio. Doctors say she will never walk again. Her mother takes Wilma to a Nashville hospital twice a week for therapy. Wilma has to walk with a heavy metal brace and a special shoe, though she secretly takes the brace off to practice walking without it.
|1946||School, freedom, and sports (About 1946 to about 1952).
Because of her illnesses, Wilma misses kindergarten and first grade. She enters Cobb Elementary as a second grader. By the time she is 12, she no longer wears her brace. She attends Burt High School and joins the girls' basketball team when she is in the 7th grade, though the coach keeps her on the bench.
|1956||Basketball and running (About 1956).
Wilma is now almost 6 feet tall. The coach finally puts her into the basketball games and she does really well. He nicknames her "Skeeter" because she reminds him of a mosquito. When the team is not playing, the coach starts a track team to keep them in shape. Wilma starts winning races.
|1956||Winning and losing (Spring 1956).
Wilma wins all her races at home. She goes to the Amateur Athletic Union track meet held at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but loses every race. Wilma is very disappointed, but Coach Ed Temple from Tennessee State University sees her and invites her to a summer training camp in Nashville.
|1956||Summer training and open doors (Summer 1956).
The training camp in Nashville is very intense. Now 16 years old, Wilma works hard. She runs in a big track meet in Philadelphia and wins all 9 of her races. She heads to the Olympic tryouts in Seattle, Washington and qualifies to represent the United States in the Summer Olympic games.
|1956||Olympics (November - December 1956).
Wilma flies with the team to Melbourne, Australia where the Olympic games will be held. This is her first time in an airplane. Though she does not qualify for the individual competition, she races in the 4x100 meter relay and helps her team win the bronze medal for the United States.
|1958||Graduation and a baby.
Wilma graduates from Burt High School in June. The following month she gives birth to her daughter Yolanda. As a young mother she almost loses her chance to attend Tennessee State University, but the track coach makes an exception.
|1958||College and racing (1958 - 1960).
Wilma enters Tennessee State University as an elementary education and psychology major. She also becomes a star athlete. In the summer of 1960 she breaks the world record for the 200 meter dash with a time of 22.9 seconds.
|1960||Summer Olympics in Rome.
In late summer, Wilma leaves for Rome, Italy to participate in her second Olympic games. She almost loses her chance to race when she twists her ankle the day before her first competition. However, she ends up winning 3 gold medals, becoming the first American woman to do so in a single game.
|1960||Barriers begin to crumble.
Wilma lives in an area of the United States where black and white people keep separate from one another. However, people from all races now want to meet her. When she returns to Clarksville, Tennessee, black and white citizens gather together for the first time to give a parade in her honor.
|1961||Meeting a president and getting married.
In April of 1961 Wilma meets President John F. Kennedy at the White House in Washington, D.C. Later she marries fellow athlete William Ward, but the marriage ends the following year. She is honored with many athletic awards, but she retires from running in 1962.
|1963||Graduation, teaching, and marriage.
Wilma graduates from Tennessee State University in 1963 with her degree in elementary education. She also marries her high school sweetheart, Robert Eldridge. They have 3 more children together. Wilma is asked to coach track at Burt High School, and she teaches second grade at Cobb Elementary.
|1963||Honors and foundations (1963 - 1981).
Because of her fame, Wilma is asked to be a Goodwill Ambassador to Africa for the U.S. State Department in 1963. In 1967 she participates in Operation Champion, a program to train young athletes from poor areas. She also starts the Wilma Rudolph Foundation to help encourage amateur athletes.
In 1983, Wilma is voted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. In 1994, she is inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame. That same year she develops brain cancer. In November, within months of being diagnosed, Wilma dies. She is 54. Tennessee State flags are lowered to half-mast in her honor.