Rudolph was born in Clarksville, Tennessee and at early age, it was discovered that she, the 20th of 22 children, had polio. Her mother took her to a hospital for blacks 50 miles from their home twice a week, and at age 12, she could walk normally again and she decided to become an athlete. She was playing for the basketball team of her junior high school, when she was spotted by the track and field coach.
After her athletic career, Rudolph worked as a teacher, track coach, and sports commentator. She married Robert Eldridge in 1963 and had four children: Yolanda (1958), Djuanna (1964), Robert Jr. (1965) and Xurry (1971). They later divorced.
At age 54, Wilma Rudolph died in her home in Brentwood, Tennessee of brain cancer.