(TSU News Service) — Tennessee State University joined the world in remembering alumna Wilma Glodean Rudolph, the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympiad. She also galvanized the country and made the world take notice as the first African American female to accomplish this feat.
Rudolph would have been 79 on Sunday, June 23. But even in death, her legacy lives on.
“We are so very blessed to have had the great Olympic Champion and former Tigerbelle Wilma Rudolph attend and graduate from Tennessee State University,” said TSU President Glenda Glover. “Ms. Rudolph’s determination and accomplishments, on and off the track field, continue to inspire young people today. She will always be remembered as a global icon and a trailblazer in her sport as a record-setting gold medalist, and TSU is proud to be a part of Wilma’s amazing history as we celebrate her.”
As a child, Rudolph battled double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio. Problems with her leg forced her to wear a leg brace. But she overcame her illnesses, and eventually, her disability through intense physical therapy, and her mother’s support.
“My doctors told me I would never walk again,” Rudolph said in an interview. “My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”
She did way more than walk. In 1958, Rudolph enrolled at then Tennessee A&I and joined the famed Tigerbelles, under legendary track and field coach Ed Temple.
As a sophomore, Rudolph competed in the U.S. Olympic track and field trials at Abilene Christian University, in Texas, where she set a world record in the 200-meter dash. With that performance, she also qualified for the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy, and soon made history.
Rudolph competed in three events on a cinder track in Rome’s Stadio Olimpico: the 100- and 200-meter sprints, as well as the 4 × 100-meter relay. She won a gold medal in each of the three events, and immediately rose to international fame.
TSU alumnus Ralph Boston, who won a gold medal in the long jump competition at the 1960 Olympics as well, said he and Rudolph won their medals less than 15 minutes apart. Boston said he still marvels at her perseverance.
“Here’s a person who couldn’t walk, and then becomes at the time the greatest sprinter that ever lived,” Boston said.
He said Rudolph had many admirers, including boxing legend Muhammad Ali, who was very fond of her. Boston said they met Ali while in Rome, and he stayed in contact with them afterward, even making several stops at TSU to see them on his way to training camp in Miami. Boston fondly recalls the champ mainly wanted to see Rudolph.
“He had brashness, but he was always very cordial,” Boston said of Ali.
Former Tigerbelle Edith McGuire Duvall said she first met Rudolph right before she went to the Olympics in 1960. She said the accomplishment of Rudolph, and the other track and field TSU Tigers, was inspirational.
“To have met them that summer, and then they went to the Olympics and won gold medals, it made me want to be a part of that,” said Duvall, who went on to win a gold and two silver medals at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. “It motivated me.”
Chandra Cheeseborough-Guice, a former Tigerbelle who currently serves as director of track and field at TSU, said she first met Rudolph when she was a high school senior, and that the two formed a bond that lasted until Rudolph’s death.
“She was just a down-to-earth person,” said Cheeseborough-Guice. “She brought me in like one of her own children. She was a mother figure to me.”
Rudolph’s feats were seen as a true American story and was made into a television movie in 1977 starring Shirley Jo Finney as Wilma, an up and coming actor by the name of Denzel Washington as her love interest, and Cicely Tyson as her mother, Blanche Rudolph.
The Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee, native was also seen as an important figure in African American history. In 2016, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture opened and featured Rudolph in its sports section, including a pair of her Olympic cleats and photographs.
TSU also has a display of the track and field sports legend housed at the Brown-Daniel Library. The campus display is a main attraction during the summer months leading up to the Olympic Games.