Before she gained fame as the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field in one Olympic Games, Wilma Rudolph was known as “Skeeter” — the baby on the Tennessee State track team and a girl with endless talent but little formal training in the art of running track.
Fortunately, Tennessee State coach Ed Temple and Rudolph’s Tigerbelles teammates took notice of her potential and, in the late 1950s, made it their goal to make the pigeon-toed, slew-footed girl from Saint Bethlehem, Tenn. — one of 22 children in her family — the best sprinter on the planet.
“Her toes were turned in, her arms were flapping all over the place, and she just had horrible form,” said Barbara Jones, Rudolph’s teammate at Tennessee State and on the 4×100 team at the 1960 Olympics.
“So we went to the football field, took Skeeter in our hands and we tied her arms down because when she ran she always had her arms all over the place. We put weights on her ankles, and we taught her how to move her arms and how to turn her feet in.”
“All of a sudden, she evolved like a butterfly,” Jones said. “Her form was fantastic. She had the prettiest form you’d ever want to see, with those long beautiful legs and then those arms were working right. When she was running she looked like a gazelle. She was so good, and in 1960, you saw what happened.”
What happened, at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, was the most dominant performance anyone had ever seen in women’s track and field.
The 20-year-old Rudolph first tied the world record in the 100-meter semifinals, then won gold in the finals with an 11-second time that would have set a new world record, had it not been wind-aided. Rudolph then doubled up in the 200 meters, her better event, with a time of 24 seconds flat, nearly a half-second better than silver medalist Jutta Heine of Germany.
Rudolph capped off the trifecta by running anchor in the 4×100, helping to set a world record in the first round before taking the baton from Lucinda Williams in the finals and bringing home the gold for the U.S. team, which had claimed bronze at the 1956 games in Melbourne, Australia.
Oh, and she did it all after spraining her ankle on a practice field in Rome the day before her first race.
“Having trained with her, having watched her run and having been around her, you weren’t surprised,” said Ralph Boston, a men’s long jumper at the 1960 Games. “If you look at pictures finishing races, you will see that one of her ankles is taped … so the feat of winning those medals in Rome, in my mind, was made greater by the fact that she was running on a somewhat bum leg.”
One could forgive Rudolph had she let her success on the world’s largest stage go to her head, but that wasn’t the type of person she was, according to Jones.
“The only thing that she wanted was to make sure that she had was a brush and a comb at the end of the race,” Jones said. “We always had a comb and a brush so that her hair would always look pretty when photographers took her pictures. … But Wilma wasn’t a conceited person. She was very generous and kind, and she was very innocent. Even when she continued to run after the Olympics, she still had that sense of innocence.”
And maybe that innocence was a product of knowing where she came from and, unprecedented as it may have been, expecting the results she earned in Rome.
“She didn’t run any different in the Olympics than she would have at practice, because Mr. Temple and (his wife) Mrs. (Charlie) Temple trained us like that,” Jones said. “A lot of people would think that because you’re in the Olympics you would tighten up, but we were prepared for the Olympics.
“We ran in the rain, we practiced when the sun was beaming down on us — that Tennessee sun is hot — we ran in the evening when it was cool, and there was nothing that would stop us from practicing. So what she did (in Rome) was what she was trained to do as a Tennessee State Tigerbelle.”