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ESPN Feature: Wilma Rudolph Was Always In The Lead
Tuesday, June 23, 2020
ESPN Feature: Wilma Rudolph Was Always In The Lead

Originally published by on Feb. 27, 2014 - Andrew Linnehan

Donna de Varona was biting her tongue in the buffet line at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, stuck behind a methodical and indecisive fellow American athlete in the cafeteria at the Olympic Village.

"I wondered who this woman was," said de Varona, then a 13-year-old preparing to swim in preliminary heats for the eventual gold-medal-winning 400-meter freestyle relay. "Why was she taking so long? And with few women's sports on the Olympic calendar, I wondered what sport she had qualified for."

De Varona, a self-described track fan, would later learn that this tall, elegant African-American woman moving so slowly in the buffet line was the fastest woman in the world.

Having carefully selected her meal at the village, Wilma Rudolph burst onto the world's sports scene at the Rome Olympics. Yes, she had already won a bronze medal at the 1956 Melbourne Games and a gold at the 1959 Pan Am Games, but in 1960, she became legendary.

Rudolph raced to gold medals in both the 100- and 200-meter dashes and joined Tennessee State teammates Martha Hudson, Barbara Jones and Lucinda Williams to set a world record in the 4x100 relay. Rudolph was the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympics.

After the Olympics, the Clarksville, Tenn., native, who had been stricken with polio as a child, was celebrated across the globe, with newspapers nicknaming her The Black Pearl and The Black Gazelle and admirers flocking to see her at events and meets. Her speed, grace and outreach helped pave the way for young African-American girls, including future Olympians Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

But back to those Rome Games. Williams was a step ahead of Rudolph in her role-model duties at that time and already had served as an inspiration for many up-and-coming track stars. Take, for instance, Lacey O'Neal, who was in attendance at the 1960 Olympics and later competed at the 1964 and 1972 Games. At the time, little if anything was being published about women's sports, so to set a goal for herself, a young O'Neal had to turn to the Guinness Book of World Records. Next to the 200-meter time was the name Lucinda Williams.

"Once I saw her name in the record book, I concentrated on her," O'Neal said of her strategy for the 1960 U.S. championships. "When I ran my race ... I tied her world record."

Her time atop the record book was not to last long; Rudolph would run later that day in the same competition."She came along 10 minutes after me and killed my record," O'Neal said. "And I just thought, 'Oh well, at least I had 10 minutes of fame.'"

A new Rudolph admirer was born.

Another young Olympian influenced by Rudolph was Pat Connolly, the youngest member of the U.S. track team at the 1960 Games. Connolly remembers a more personal side of Rudolph.

"I fell in my race [the 800 meters], and it was pretty much a disaster," said Connolly, who was competing in her first of three Olympics and who would go on to win the pentathlon gold medal at the 1967 Pan American Games. "When I got back to the dorms, I was pretty much alone, and I was heading down a marble staircase on my way to get something to eat and she stopped me and took some time to talk to me and comfort me. She didn't have to do it. It was a very tender moment."

It is this loving gentleness that Rudolph's friends and teammates remember now, more than 50 years after her feats in Rome and nearly 20 years after her death from cancer at the age of 54 on Nov. 12, 1994. But it is also her running style, which had a softness and a quietness to it that uncannily matched her personality.

"It was effortless; she was like a gazelle," O'Neal said. "She didn't even look like she was trying. Sometimes I would watch her run, and I had no desire to even try to beat her because I wanted her to win. I had never felt anything close to that as a competitor before."

Rudolph became more than just the first American woman to win three track and field gold medals at a single Olympics. In an era that didn't care much to celebrate people of her gender or race, she became an American icon.

In 1967, five years after Rudolph's retirement and in the midst of civil rights turmoil, Vice President Hubert Humphrey launched a program called Operation Champ, in which star athletes would visit hate-ridden inner cities to teach the power of love and nonviolent purpose. Rudolph was part of the delegation, teaching at-risk kids the art of track and field.

"[Humphrey] wanted to use athletes as role models to go to these riot-torn cities to try to make peace and prevent further rioting," said O'Neal, who was grouped with de Varona and other icons, such as Larry Doby and Earl Monroe. "He felt that athletes were the one group of people that could affect change in our youth."

Rudolph's efforts are still affecting change today. They are felt in young track athletes coached by Connolly, who still teaches Rudolph's running style. They are felt by the thousands of underprivileged youth nurtured by the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides academic and athletic assistance. And they are felt by any American girl who falls in love with sports today, who reaps the benefits of Title IX and the Women's Sports Foundation, which hands out the Wilma Rudolph Courage Award. De Varona, long after winning two gold medals at the 1964 Olympics, was its first president.

There was a lot of talent on Team USA in Rome in 1960. Not necessarily the kind you measure in meters or in seconds but the kind you measure in hearts, hopes and dreams. But if it wasn't for Rudolph's athleticism, her effortless and captivating speed, it is possible that neither she nor her lifelong friends would have had a platform to stand on.

Probably a good thing that de Varona let Rudolph grab as many carbs as she wanted in that Olympic Village buffet line that day.