Her Roman conquest
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com

"She was the first. Why does Lindbergh stay with us? Why does John Glenn stay with us? Wilma Rudolph was the first American female champion that was seen by millions of people," says Bud Greenspan, Olympic historian, on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, April 9, 10:30 p.m. ET).

Rudolph, winner of three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics, was voted No. 41 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.


Sept. 2, 1960 -- Rudolph was one cool competitor at the Olympics in Rome. Before her semifinal heat in the 100 meters, she actually fell asleep. Then she tied the world record of 11.3 seconds.

 Wilma Rudolph
Wilma Rudolph raced to three gold medals in Rome.

In today's final, Rudolph got off to a relatively good start.

"I came out second or third in the field, and my speed started increasing the farther I went," she said. "When I reached 50 meters, I saw that I had them all, and I was just beginning to turn it on. By 70 meters, I knew the race was mine, nobody was going to catch me."

They didn't. Rudolph blazed across the finish line in 11 seconds flat, winning by three yards. She said that she did it for Ray Norton, the sprinter with whom she had been romantically linked.

"I was heartsick when Ray was beaten in the men's 100-meter finals," Rudolph said about Norton's last-place finish. "I knew the best way to cheer him up was to win myself -- and win good."

After Rudolph's triumph, the couple left the stadium arm-in-arm, and they were cuddling when they reached the Olympic village.

It was announced that Rudolph had set a world record. Later in the day, it was stated officially that her mark would not be recognized because the wind was 2.752 meters per second, exceeding the allowed maximum of two meters. But that didn't detract from the performance by Rudolph, the first American woman gold medalist in the 100 meters since Helen Stephens in 1936.


While growing up in Clarksville, Tenn., she believed that "all white people were mean and evil." Eventually, that was tempered by her religious commitment at the age of 15.

As a high school sophomore, Rudolph scored 803 points to set a record for high school girls' basketball in Tennessee. She led Burt High School to a third-place finish in Tennessee's State Negro tournament.

Before her junior year in high school, Rudolph competed at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. She won a bronze medal on the 4-x-100-meter relay team, but was eliminated in a heat of the 200 meters.

As a high school junior, she helped Burt win the state tournament. She quit the team as a senior because she became pregnant.

Among the many things Rudolph learned from her mentor, Tennessee State track coach Ed Temple, was pride and all aspects of being a female. Temple taught his girls that dress was the key to being a successful female. His team was not allowed to wear pants, especially when it was traveling.

At the 1960 Olympic Trials, Rudolph set a world record of 22.9 seconds in the 200 meters.

At the Olympics, she was the only track-and-field athlete to win three gold medals. An English writer said that Rudolph has the carriage "a queen should have."

When she returned to the United States, she was a celebrity and met President John Kennedy in the White House.

Rudolph is the only track athlete to be named the Associated Press' Female Athlete of the Year more than once (1960 and 1961).

She set a woman's indoor record of 6.9 seconds for the 60-yard dash in 1961.

That year, she won the Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete (male or female) in the U.S.

She retired from running in 1962 because, she said, she wanted to be remembered "at her best." About not staying around for the 1964 Olympics, she said, "If I won two gold medals, there would be something lacking. I'll stick with the glory I've already won, like Jesse Owens did in 1936."

After graduating with a bachelor's degree from Tennessee State, she became a teacher and a girls track coach. She had problems earning money and moved from job to job. She believed she was exploited for her name and not given a real opportunity. She also had tax problems.

She was divorced twice. As a single mother, she raised four children (two sons and two daughters).