WILMA (Rudolph) and ALTHEA (Gibson)
They paved the way in Track-and-Field and Tennis for Flo-Jo, Jackie Joyner Kersee, and others; and Serena and Venus Williams, and many, many more.
WILMA G. RUDOLPH
(Sunrise: June 23, 1940 – Sunset: November 12, 1994)
Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born prematurely, weighing only 4.5 pounds, in St Bethlehem, Tennessee to Ed and Blanche Rudolph. Her father worked as a railroad porter and handyman; her mother did cooking, laundry and housecleaning for wealthy White families. Most of the time, her mother had to stay at home with her because she was very sickly. From one illness to another, she had measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox and pneumonia until she was diagnosed with polio, a crippling disease with no possible cure.
Rudolph had to be tutored at home because her parents could not afford the cost of a special tutor or special education; they were very poor and that was not in the budget, at school or at home.
Eventually, with the help of braces, she started to go to school when she was seven years old, and they were not removed until she was eleven years old. She used to get daily massages until she was able to walk with the aid of specially made shoes. After three years, she discarded the shoes and began to participate in physically challenging activities. She attended Burt High School in Clarksville, where she broke the state girls record in basketball and in her school’s track meets. She was then invited by Ed Temple, a coach at Tennessee State University, to participate in a training camp and he became her most important professional influence. In 1956, she took part in the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia. And even though she lost the 200-meter race, her team got the bronze medal in the relay.
Upon graduation from high school, Rudolph went to Tennessee State University on a full scholarship, where she received a bachelor’s degree in Education. While at the university, she made several appearances and competed in international sports and became a member of Coach Ed Temple’s ‘Tigerbelles’ track team. Under his tutelage, she set the world record for the 200 meter dash in 1960; then went on to become the first American woman to win three medals: the 100 meter dash, the 200 meter dash and as the anchor in the 400 meter relay in the Olympic Games in Rome.
The South was segregated at that time, but when she returned to Tennessee from Rome, she received a hero’s welcome by a racially integrated parade. Next, she received the Sullivan Award given to the top Black amateur athlete in the United States, the Female Athlete of the Year Award by the Associated Press, and the United Press Athlete of the Year Award.
Rudolph wrote a best selling autobiography in 1977, Wilma Rudolph on Track, and it became a television movie, starring Cicely Tyson. During the time she was actively involved in athletics and especially afterwards, she served as a coach, a sports consultant, an assistant director of athletics and a teacher. She founded the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, was a goodwill ambassador for sports, s talk show hostess and a lecturer. Her story was inspirational in that she overcame tremendous physical obstacles to become a star athlete – the fastest woman in the world. Her religious conviction helped her to overcome racism and segregation that were openly prevalent at that time.
She married her high school sweetheart, Robert Eldridge, in 1963 and they had four children: Yolanda, Djuanna, Robert Jr., and Xurry. She died at her home in Brentwood, Tennessee of a brain tumor.
A STUDENT FROM PENNYSLAVANIA WROTE THE FOLLOWING ABOUT RUDOLPH, AS A ROLE MODEL:
Wilma Rudolph is my hero because she was a great African American track star, and I love to run. I know that academics will get me somewhere in life, and track is the sport that I believe also will help me accomplish my goals. I’ve watched movies of Wilma Rudolph and read books about her, and I hope someday to be like her. I would like to have her speed and a loving family to give me confidence, so I too can have the feeling that you get after you win.
(Sunrise: Aug. 25, 1927 – Sunset: Sept. 28, 2003)
When Althea Gibson was born, tennis, like many facets of American society, was rigidly segregated. She was born on August 25, 1927 in Silver, South Carolina. At the age of three, her parents, Daniel and Anne Gibson, moved to New York, where she grew up in the rough and tumble life of Harlem. She graduated from junior high school in 1941 and was transferred to Yorkville Trade School.
Her school years were somewhat disappointing to her parents because she was not an A-student nor did she seem to be college-bound, a quality that Black parents strenuously pushed for in their children to help ease the pain and the strain of segregation and discrimination. It was during that time that the magnetism of tennis captured young Gibson’s imagination. She had found her niche and began playing paddle tennis.
After winning some medals in local competitions, she was observed by Buddy Walker who took her to the Harlem River Cosmopolitan Tennis Courts where her game improved by leaps-and-bounds. Along the way, she also met Juan Serrell, a schoolteacher, who took her to his tennis club where she further developed her aptitude, and fine-tuned her skills. Around 1942, she played in her first tournament in the New York Open Championship where she reached the finals.
It is important to note that the social climate at that time, made Gibson a target of race-haters and white racists. While she was playing tennis, she was also battling discrimination. In addition, unlike Jackie Robinson, whose color line breakthrough was lauded as being historic, her breaking the color barrier in tennis went largely unheralded. However, she persevered and prevailed like so many other Blacks in similar racial situations.
Then two Black physicians, Drs. Hubert Eaton and Walter Johnson, themselves avid tennis players, took a serious interest in Gibson’s career and began to guide her down the professional path. Through their efforts, she received better training and instructions, and began to participate in more recognized competitions. She had a sterling amateur career during the late forties and fifties. She won 56 singles and doubles before being recognized for her athletic ability, skill and grace in professional tennis. She was the first and the “only” which was very lonely at that time. In 1951, she won her first international title, the Caribbean Championship in Montego Bay, Jamaica. From there, she went on to win 11 major titles including the French Championship in 1956; prestigious championships at both Wimbledon and Forest Hills in 1957, and the Australian Doubles and the U.S. Open in the late fifties. In 1957, the Associated Press voted Gibson the Female Athlete of the year. She was presented the Medallion of the City by then New York Mayor Robert Wagner; and she was honored with the ticker tape parade along Broadway for her Wimbledon victory.
Though she made her mark in tennis, Gibson also was an avid golf player. She qualified for the Ladies Professional Golf Association in 1964 and was one of the longest hitters in the game. She played in 171 LPGA tournaments.
Not only did she pioneer the way for tennis greats Arthur Ashe, and Venus and Serena Williams, but Gibson also paved the way for golfing great Tiger Woods.
She recounted her life in her autobiography, I Always Wanted to be Somebody, and left a rich legacy in American history. Gibson died on September 28, 2003.
FLORENCE GRIFFITH-JOYNER (FLO-JO)
Sunrise: Dec. 21, 1959 – Sunset: Sept. 21, 1998
Florence Griffith-Joyner was born Delorez Florence Griffith in Mojave, California. As a child of the desert, she was a natural runner – she chased rabbits for fun. She moved to Los Angeles at an early age and attended Jordan High School. Her interest and formal introduction to “track” were at the Sugar Ray Robinson Youth Foundation where she showed signs of her great running ability. From there, she won the National Jesse Owens Youth Games at the age of 14. Before graduating from Jordan High School in 1978, Griffith had broken all the school’s records for sprints and long jump.
She attended California State University at Northridge briefly and then transferred to UCLA where she met Bobby Kersee in 1980. He became her coach and trained her for her first Olympic tryout. Though she was not successful on her first try, she earned the 1982 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) title in the 200-meter dash in 22.39 seconds. Then in 1983, she won the NCAA championship title in the 400-meter dash in 50.94 seconds. Her dream of being selected to be on the U.S. Olympic team was assured in 1984 when she won a silver medal in the 200-meter dash.
In 1987, she married Al Joyner, a 1984 Olympic medallist, who eventually became her trainer, and became affectionately known as “Flo-Jo.” (Through her marriage, she became the sister-in-law of another track star and Olympian, Jackie Joyner-Kersee). During the next two years, Griffith-Joyner placed second in the 200-meter race at the World Championship Games in Rome, Italy, and then shattered U.S. and world records by breaking her own records. She won three gold medals at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 for the 100, 200 and 400-meter races, in addition to a silver medal for the 1600-meter relay.
In the 1980s, she became known as the world’s fastest woman and a true sports hero. She popularized the flashy track and field outfits that are so prevalent today and typified long, decoratively-painted fingernails. She was voted U.S. Olympic Committee and Associated Press Female Athlete of the year in 1988 and received the Jesse Owens Award as an outstanding track and field athlete.
Griffith-Joyner retired from track and field in 1989 and went into the clothing design and cosmetics business; she designed uniforms for the Indiana Pacers. She was a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society and the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation and former President Clinton named her as the co-chair of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. She and her husband founded the Florence Griffith-Joyner Foundation for disadvantaged youth.
She had one daughter, Mary Ruth Joyner (Mo-Jo) in 1990, and was inducted into the U.S. Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1995.
Griffith-Joyner was a legend who died at the “youthful” age of 38 from an apparent epileptic seizure. She was an inspiration especially to female athletes of her time and beyond, and will always be remembered for her beauty, strength and grace on and off the track.
SERENA and VENUS WILLIAMS
Serena and Venus Williams dominate the tennis circuit, on and off the courts as a normal part of their game skills.
Serena Williams is an American professional tennis player; the Women’s Tennis Association has ranked her world no. 1 in singles on five separate occasions. She became the world No. 1 on July 8, 2002 and regained it again for the fifth time on November 2, 2009 and she became the only female player to have won over $35 million in prize money.
Her Grand Slam titles placed her ninth on the all-time list: 13 in singles, 12 in women’s doubles, and 2 in mixed doubles. She is the most recent tennis player – male or female – to have held all four Grand Slam singles titles simultaneously, and the fifth woman in history to do so. Along with her sister, Venus, Serena was the first woman to hold all four Grand Slam doubles titles simultaneously since Martina Hingis did so in 1998. Serena ranks fourth in Grand Slam women’s singles titles won during the open era, behind Steffi Graf’s (22 titles) and Chris Evert’s and Martina Navratilova’s (18 titles each). In addition, she has won more major titles in singles, doubles, and mixed doubles than any other active player – male or female.
Serena has won two Olympic gold medals in women’s doubles and more career prize money than any other female athlete in history. There has also been some sibling rivalry in play when Serena and older sister, Venus, go at it on the court; since 1998, they have played a total of 23 professional matches. In the professional matches, Serena won 13 of the matches; when they met in Grand Slam finals, Serena won six out of eight. At the 2002 French Open, they played each other in four consecutive Grand Slam singles finals and have won 12 Grand Slam doubles titles together. Serena is the first player, male or female, to win 5 Australian Open singles titles during the open era.
Venus began in the 1998 season beating Hingis in a tournament in Sydney, Australia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Australian Open where she defeated Serena. After Venus lost in the singles draw, she teamed up with another player and together, they won the mixed doubles championship. She then went on to win her first WTA singles title and then scored a big win at the Lipton International, where she defeated the Russia champion and Hingis. The Lipton win catapulted Venus into the top 10 and she finished 1998 with a great record in the Grand Slams to reach the quarterfinals of the French Open, Wimbledon and the semifinals of the U.S. Open.
However, a Grand Slam victory still eluded her, despite her impressive record and growing confidence. She dreamed of it particularly because Serena, her younger sister, had already reached that milestone.
By 1999, Serena and Venus ranked in the top five in the world. Still the higher-r Venus was the second-highest paid player in terms of prize money and Serena was the third with career earnings of nearly $4.6 million. Together, they were both at the top of their game – their rankings and income validated it.