Years later, mother and daughter would have a heart-to-heart, and what came pouring out of the mother’s was a lifetime of guilt and regret. In the fall of 1958, Wilma Rudolph had all but abandoned her infant daughter to go off and pursue her Olympic dreams, the child’s mere existence hidden from the world. That was the way it had to happen in the late 1950s and early 1960s, particularly for a Black woman whose baby was born out of wedlock.
“They weren’t putting Black women on Wheaties boxes in 1960,” Yolanda Rudolph said recently. And though Wilma Rudolph was successful on the track, winning three gold medals as a sprinter at the 1960 Rome Olympics, it could never be enough to compensate for what she had lost.
“She told me it made her sad because she missed a lot of my milestones,” said Yolanda Rudolph, who spent the first 11 years of her life being raised by her grandmother in Clarksville, Tenn., as Wilma, who died in 1994, became an Olympic icon.
“She missed being with me when I found out there was no Santa Claus — because I saw Grandma bringing all the stuff in that Momma had bought,” she said. “She missed stuff like putting something under my pillow when I lost a tooth. She was sorry I always had to explain to the other kids where my momma and daddy was. She was crying. I said, ‘Momma, why you crying?’ She said, ‘Because I left you in Clarksville too long.’ ”
This summer, at least a dozen moms will compete for Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics, among them some of the most accomplished and famous female athletes of their era: Allyson Felix, Alex Morgan and Diana Taurasi, to name a few. Countless other Olympian moms will compete in Tokyo for other nations.
None, it is safe to assume, will have to hide their motherhood from the world. Quite the opposite: For Olympian moms, that aspect of their lives is an essential part of their stories, their motherhood journeys highlighted in soft-focused television profiles, their triumphs often celebrated with victory laps or podium photo ops with their infants or toddlers in their arms.