illustration of a runner in starting position for a race
Artwork by Greg Ruhl from The Superkids Reading Program Wilma Rudolph © Zaner-Bloser, Inc. Used with permission from Zaner-Bloser, Inc. All rights reserved..


The amazing story of Wilma Rudolph, the fastest woman in the world

By Spencer Kayden
From the September 2020 Issue

Learning Objective: After reading a drama about Wilma Rudolph, who overcame great hurdles to become a sports champion, students will identify character traits that helped Rudolph succeed.

Guided Reading Level: T
DRA Level: 50

Character Traits

As you read this play, look for the strong traits Wilma Rudolph had that helped her become a champion.

Scene 1

N1: Let us take you back to 1944.

N2: To a little town in Tennessee called Clarksville.

N3: The Rudolph family lives here in a wooden house with no electricity.

N1: As the sun goes down, Mama lights candles.

N2: Four-year-old Wilma lies in bed shivering, covered in blankets.

N3: Dr. Coleman sits at her side.

Dr. Coleman: How are you feeling, Wilma?

Wilma (weakly): Not good.

Mama: Wilma has been sickly since the day she was born, but this is something different.

Papa: Her fever won’t go away, and one leg has gone crooked with the foot twisted inward.

Dr. Coleman: I’m afraid Wilma has polio. It’s a disease that attacks the spinal cord.

Mama: Is her leg going to stay like that?

Dr. Coleman: Time will tell. She should see a specialist in Nashville.

Papa: That’s 50 miles away!

Dr. Coleman: It’s the nearest hospital that will treat Black patients.

N1: Many unfair, racist rules at the time make life difficult for Black people.

N2: Like not being allowed to go to the same hospitals as white people. 

Mama: If it will help Wilma, then we’ll do it.

Papa: We’ll have to save up money for the bus.

Dr. Coleman: I must warn you: Don’t get your hopes up. Wilma may never walk again.

N3: Dr. Coleman leaves. Wilma looks up at Mama, her eyes wide.

Wilma: Is it true, Mama? I can’t walk anymore?

Mama: No, sweet girl. We’ll do whatever it takes to make sure you can.

Artwork by Greg Ruhl from The Superkids Reading Program Wilma Rudolph © Zaner-Bloser, Inc.  Used with permission from Zaner-Bloser, Inc.  All rights reserved.

A Feared Disease

In the mid-1900s, polio was a feared and deadly disease in America. In 1955, a polio vaccine became available, so children today no longer need to face the struggles that Wilma did.

Scene 2

N1: Now it is 1949. Nine-year-old Wilma is on her way home from school.

N2: She wears a long metal brace on her leg, from her knee down to her shoe.

N3: She hobbles behind her brothers and sisters, trying to keep up.

Wilma: Wait for me!

N1: Wilma finally reaches home and bursts through the door, panting.

Mama: Easy now, Wilma! Remember, the doctor says you should take it slow.

Wilma: Don’t worry, Mama. Those treatments in Nashville are making my leg stronger.

Mama: I’m glad to hear that. How was school?

Wilma: Kids still look at me funny—like there’s something wrong with me.

Papa: There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just different.

Wilma: Sometimes they call me mean names.

Papa: Don’t pay them any mind.

Wilma: And they don’t want to play with me because I’m slow. I’m tired of being “the sick girl.” I just want to be normal.

Yvonne: Mama, come look at this drawing I did.

N2: Yvonne winks at Wilma.

N3: Once Mama is distracted, Wilma slips outside and takes off her brace.

N1: She practices walking without it.

Wesley: Wilma, don’t let Mama catch you without your brace on!

Wilma: Don’t you tell her!

N2: Wilma walks the length of the porch.

Wesley: Hey, you’re getting pretty good at that.

Wilma: Whenever kids tease me, I think to myself, “Someday, I’ll show you all.”

Scene 3

N3: In 1952, Wilma feels healthy for the first time in her life.

N1: One day, she sees a group of boys in a field.

Edward: This race is going to be down to the big tree and back.

N2: Twelve-year-old Wilma approaches.

Wilma: Can I run too?

Robert: You want to race us?

Wilma: That’s right.

Edward: Where’s your leg brace?

Wilma: I don’t need it anymore.

Robert: You can race. But prepare to eat dust.

Wilma: We’ll see about that.

Edward: Ready, set, GO!

N3: Wilma bursts ahead, but the boys are faster.

N1: Dust flies in her face.

Robert (shouting): Told you so!

Wilma (to herself): Come on, Wilma. Push!

N2: She pumps her legs harder, passing one boy, then another.

Edward: Wow. She’s really flying.

N3: Wilma tags the tree and turns back. She catches up to Robert.

N1: They match each other stride for stride.

Robert: No way you’re going to win!

Wilma: Watch me!

N2: Wilma darts ahead, her long legs churning.

N3: Robert catches up, his fists clenched.

Wilma (to herself): I can do this!

N1: Wilma pulls ahead and finishes first.

N2: She collapses onto the ground, laughing.

Wilma: Oooh, winning is fun! I could get used to that.

Courtesy of Montgomery County Archives

Racist Laws

From the late 1800s to the 1960s, Southern states had unfair and racist rules called Jim Crow laws. These kept Black people separate from white people. Black kids like Wilma had to go to different schools, play in different parks, and drink from different water fountains than white kids. Above, Bailey Cobb Elementary School was the only elementary school in Clarksville that Wilma and other Black children could attend.

Scene 4

N3: Wilma discovers she has a natural talent for running. She joins her high school track team.

N1: In every race, she outdoes the competition.

N2: In 1956, her team travels to Alabama for a big track meet.

N3: Wilma and her teammates warm up. 

Coach Gray: Listen up, everyone. The competition will be fierce. The best high school runners in the South are here.

Nancy: Wilma’s got nothing to worry about. She’s won every race she’s ever been in. 

Wilma (smiling): What can I say? It’s true.

N1: But the meet turns out to be a disaster for Wilma. She is outrun in every event.

N2: Afterward, Wilma sits in the empty stands, tears spilling down her cheeks.

N3: Coach Gray comes over. 

Wilma: I feel like a fool. How am I ever going to race again? My confidence is gone.

Coach Gray: Losing is not the end of the world, Wilma. What matters is how you deal with it.

N1: Wilma takes a deep breath.

Coach Gray: Coach Ed Temple wants you to train with his college team.

Wilma: Why? I just lost all those races.

Coach Gray: It doesn’t matter that you lost. He can see that you’re a fighter. 

N2: Wilma wipes her eyes.

Coach Gray: You can choose to be crushed by defeat, or you can pick yourself up and try to win the next race.

Wilma: You’re right, Coach. I’ve got to train even harder. I’ll be back stronger and faster than ever.

Artwork by Greg Ruhl from The Superkids Reading Program Wilma Rudolph © Zaner-Bloser, Inc.  Used with permission from Zaner-Bloser, Inc.  All rights reserved.

Racing in Rome

Wilma Rudolph was the shining star of the 1960 Rome Olympics. Not only was she superfast, setting one world record and tying another, but the crowds loved her. They went wild whenever she ran.

Scene 5

N3: While still in high school, Wilma starts training with Coach Temple and the athletes from Tennessee State University.   

N1: She practices whenever she can.

Nancy: Wilma, why weren’t you in English class?

Wilma: You promise not to tell?

Nancy: I promise.

Wilma: I’ve been sneaking into the stadium across from school. I need to work on my sprints, and that’s the best track in town.

N2: One day, Coach Temple pulls her aside. 

Coach Temple: Wilma, I think you have a chance to run in the Olympics. I want you to come with us to the trials in two weeks.

Wilma: Really, the Olympics? Yes sir, Coach!

Coach Temple: And Wilma, don’t hold back.

N3: After the trials, Wilma calls home.

Wilma: Mama! I made the Olympic relay team!

Mama: Oh, Wilma. I’m so proud of you!

Wilma: Imagine me, 16-year-old Wilma Rudolph from Clarksville, Tennessee, going all the way to Australia.

Mama: How exciting!

Wilma: Not so long ago, I could barely walk. 

Mama: All those trips to the doctor in Nashville paid off.

Wilma: Thank you, Mama.

Mama: For what?

Wilma: For believing I could get better.

Scene 6

N1: Wilma’s relay team wins a bronze medal for third place in Australia.

N2: Wilma spends the next four years training harder than ever.

N3: The 1960 Olympics are held in Rome, Italy.

N1: Coach Temple is there with Wilma.

Coach Temple: Wilma, I keep dreaming that you are going to win three gold medals here.

Wilma: I’ve been dreaming the same thing.

Coach Temple: You’d be the first American woman in track-and-field history to do that.

N2: Days later, Wilma stands at the starting line in a huge stadium with 80,000 fans.

N3: In Tennessee, Wilma’s family crowds around a neighbor’s small television.

Announcer 1: It is a sweltering hot day here in Rome, Italy.

Announcer 2: Next up is the finals in the women’s 100 meters.

Announcer 1: American Wilma Rudolph is a favorite.

Crowd: Wil-ma! Wil-ma! Wil-ma!

Announcer 2: She ran like the wind in the qualifying heats.

Announcer 1: But next to Wilma are the best female sprinters in the world. 

N1: The athletes crouch down into the starting blocks. The starting gun fires. 

Announcer 2: The women burst from the line. Dorothy Hyman from Great Britain is in the lead.

Announcer 1: But here comes Wilma Rudolph with fire in her eyes.

Announcer 2: She is sprinting into the lead.

Announcer 1: And it’s GOLD for Wilma Rudolph!

Crowd: Hooray, Wilma!

Mama: She did it!

Papa: Our baby won gold!

Mama: From a girl who may never walk again to the fastest woman in the world.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Wilma Rudolph retired from running in 1962 and became a teacher and coach. Throughout her life, she worked to support and train young athletes across the country. She died in 1994. To this day, her life and legacy remain an inspiration to many, especially Black and female athletes.


Coach Temple: Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals at the Rome Olympics. 

Coach Gray: In the 100 meters, 200 meters, and 4 x 100-meter relay.

Nancy: She became an instant hero worldwide.

Yvonne: And a role model for young female athletes everywhere.

Wesley: When Wilma returned to Tennessee, there was a parade in her honor.

Mama: The streets of Clarksville were lined with thousands of people, both Black and white. It was the town’s first integrated event ever.

Papa: Wilma waved and smiled at them all.

Wilma: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.

See it Happen!

Watch this archival video of Wilma Rudolph’s incredible victory at the 1960 Olympics.

This play was originally published in the September 2020 issue.  

Activities (6)
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (1)
Activities (6) Download All Activities
Quizzes (1)
Answer Key (1)
Can't Miss Teaching Extras
Visit a Website

After the 1960 Olympics, Wilma Rudolph was dubbed “the fastest woman in the world.” Who are other female runners who have achieved greatness in track? Share this ESPN website with students. Invite them to pick one of the athletes, find out more about her, and report back to the class. Consider having them create a brief Flipgrid video about the runner.

Watch a Video

To better understand the setting of the play, students may benefit from having more information about U.S. civil rights history and segregation. Before reading the play, have students watch the video “Time Machine: The 1950s” to build background knowledge.

Explore a Book

Read-aloud to students from the award-winning book The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson. It is an ode to the achievements and the struggles of Black Americans - and includes a reference to Wilma Rudolph! You can also show a video of Alexander reciting his work here or here.

More About the Story


vocabulary, fluency, setting, key details, character, author’s craft, mood, figurative language, cause and effect, interpreting text, narrative writing

Complexity Factors

Levels of Meaning

The play tells the inspiring story of Wilma Rudolph, who beat polio and went on to win three gold medals in the 1960 Olympics. On a deeper level, it conveys he idea that our struggles cannot define us.


The play is chronological and has six scenes and an epilogue.


The play includes some challenging terms (e.g. spinal cord, integrated, potential), as well as metaphors and other figures of speech.

Knowledge Demands 

The play is set mainly in mid-20th century Tennessee. Some familiarity with this setting (e.g. Jim Crow) will be helpful. .

Step-by-Step Lesson Plan

1. Preparing to Read

Preview Text Features and Vocabulary

  • Have students look at the illustrations and photos and read the captions throughout the play. Then show students this archival video of Wilma Rudolph’s incredible victory at the 1960 Olympics. Ask: What story do the photos and captions tell? How do they relate to what you saw in the video?
  • Distribute the Vocabulary Skill Builder (available in your Resources tab) to introduce new words. Highlighted words: spinal cord, racist, specialist, vaccine, churning, trials, qualifying heats, integrated, potential
  • Call on a volunteer to read aloud the Up Close box for the class.

2. Reading the Play

Assign parts and read the play aloud as a class. Remote learning tip: If students are learning from home, have them video chat to read the play in small groups, doubling up on some of the small roles if necessary. Alternatively, have pairs of students read it aloud with each other on a phone call. After reading, discuss the close-reading and critical-thinking questions. A PDF of these questions and an Interactive version are both available in your Resources tab.


Close-Reading Questions

  • Based on what you learn in Scene 1, what challenges did Wilma face growing up in Clarksville? (setting) Wilma faced many challenges growing up in Clarksville. Her family was poor, and the home she grew up in had no electricity or running water. Wilma was also often sick and became very ill with a serious disease called polio. As a Black girl, Wilma also encountered racism and racist rules that made her daily life and illness more challenging.

Note: Review the following  definition of racist. It encompasses both individual and systemic racism:

“A racist person is someone who holds the false belief that people of some races are better than others. A system, government, or law is racist when it's designed to treat people of different races unequally.”

Consider discussing how Wilma’s experience of having to travel 50 miles for a hospital that would treat Black patients is an example of a racist system that harmed Black people. Traveling 50 miles would require much more time, money, and inconvenience than going to a local hospital.

  • What does Wilma’s sister Yvonne do to help Wilma in Scene 2? (key details) Yvonne distracts Mama with a drawing so that Wilma can sneak outside, take off her brace, and practice walking without it.
  • How do Wilma’s classmates’ view of her change from Scene 2 to the end of Scene 3? (character) In Scene 2, Wilma says her classmates call her names, tease her, and say she is slow because of her leg brace. At the beginning of Scene 3, two boys think they will easily beat her in a race. But by the end of Scene 3,she has won a race against those two boys without her leg brace, showing them that she is fast and determined. Her peers no longer see her as slow and are impressed with her speed.
  • In Scene 3, the stage directions in italics say Wilma says things “to herself.” Why did the author include these lines? (author’s craft) The author included these lines because they show that Wilma needed to work hard and boost her own confidence to push herself to win the race. Including these lines shows that, even from a young age, Wilma had a strong drive to succeed.
  • How does the mood, or feeling, change throughout Scene 4? (mood) At the beginning of the scene, the mood is excited, and Wilma is sure she will win the big race in Alabama. However, after she loses every race, the mood becomes defeated and it seems like Wilma has given up. At the very end of the scene, once Wilma realizes that her coach and Coach Temple still believe in her, the mood becomes hopeful and confident.
  • Choose two characters who appear in Scenes 5 and 6 and explain how these characters show Wilma that they believe in her. (character) Two of the following: Coach Temple wants Wilma to try out for the Olympic team and says he’s been dreaming that she will win gold at the Olympics in Rome. Mama tells Wilma she is proud of her for making the Olympic relay team. Throughout Wilma’s life, Mama believes she will get better and walk again. The crowd cheers loudly for Wilma when she’s running in the Olympics. 
  • Announcer 1 in Scene 6 says that Wilma is running “with fire in her eyes.” What does this mean? (figurative language) The Announcer means that Wilma is running with a look of determination. She wants to win, and the “fire in her eyes” shows that she is pushing herself hard to reach that goal.
  • Why do you think Wilma Rudolph became “an instant hero worldwide”? (cause and effect) She became a hero because she overcame an illness and racism to become the fastest woman in the world, and she was the first woman in track-and-field history to win three gold medals.


Critical-Thinking Questions

  • In Scene 4, Coach Gray calls Wilma Rudolph a “fighter.” How does what you learn about Wilma in this play support Coach Gray’s statement? (character) Wilma Rudolph battled many challenges to become a runner. She fought hard against her illness and defied the expectations of doctors, who thought she’d never walk again. Then she pushed herself to become a fast runner, practicing at every chance. Even when the competition was tough and she felt hopeless, she trained harder to become stronger and faster.
  • The last line of the play is a quote from Wilma Rudolph: “The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” What does this mean? How does this quote inspire you? (interpreting text) With this quote, Wilma means that everyone is capable of achieving great things. Answers for the second part of the question will vary.

3. Skill Building and Writing

Featured Skill: Character Traits

  • Distribute the Character Traits Skill Builder (available in your Resources tab) and have students complete it in class or for homework.
  • As a class, read the Write to Win box on page 25. Put students in pairs to complete the activity. They can use what they wrote in the Skill Builder to help them.

Great Ideas for Remote Learning

  • Gather a group in your remote classroom for a virtual play reading. Share the play on your screen and assign parts. To keep track of who is reading which part, students might change their screen names to their character’s name. Then read the play aloud together. Encourage students to be expressive as they read! Repeat with other groups until all students have had a chance to participate.
  • Our new Choice Board is perfect for remote learning. It offers nine varied activities for students to choose from, including writing, art, making a timeline, exploring new words, and more. Students can do one activity or as many as they like, working at their own pace. Because most students are getting a huge amount of screen time now, all the activities on the Choice Board can be done away from a computer. A PDF of the Choice Board and an Interactive version are both available in your Resources tab.

Differentiate and Customize
For Struggling Readers

Each scene of this play takes place during a different time in Wilma Rudolph’s life, which may make the timeline of this play challenging for some readers to follow. Before performing the play as a class, read through it together and create a timeline of events.

For ELL Students

Help your ELLs with some of the idiomatic language in this story. Find the following phrases and discuss what they mean: “eat dust” (p. 23); “The competition will be fierce” (p. 23); “the end of the world” (p. 24); “ran like the wind” (p. 25); “fire in her eyes” (p. 25).

For Advanced Readers

Wilma’s winning race in Scene 6 is narrated by the Announcers and Wilma’s family. Have students rewatch the archival video and rewrite the scene so it’s all told from Wilma’s point of view.