Olympic athletes, trailblazers, legendary champions, native daughters, overcomers, game changers. All fitting titles for Pat Head Summitt and Wilma Rudolph, who now stand in bronze anchoring Liberty Park in their Clarksville, Tenn. hometown.
Through the keen eyes of a sculptor, an architect and an exhibit designer, the Pat Head Summitt Legacy Plaza now adorns Freedom Point in Clarksville’s Liberty Park. A bronze statue of Coach Summitt, hometown hero and legendary University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach, and an interpretative display of her life story, was dedicated on June 15, 2018.
Pat Head Summitt is a name every basketball fan knows and knows well. This Clarksville native was the fiercest of competitors who served for 38 seasons with the University of Tennessee Lady Vols. While there, she garnered a record 1,098 wins and 8 national championships. Her program maintained a 100-percent graduation rate for players who completed their eligibility at Tennessee.
“Though her famous ‘stare’ may be missing, our sculpture hopes to embody her passion and fire,” said Brett Grill, sculptor of the Coach Summitt statue. “She was a rare talent, quickly ascending to the highest reaches of her field, which she dominated throughout her career.”
In 1976, Summitt won a silver medal in the Summer Olympic Games, the first year that women would play Olympic basketball. In 1984, she coached the U.S. women’s team and earned the gold medal in the Los Angeles Olympiad, making Pat the first U.S. Olympian to both win a medal of her own and coach a medal-winning team.
Twenty years before Summitt’s first Olympic appearance, another Clarksvillian, Wilma Rudolph, was the youngest member of the 1956 U.S. track and field team. Competing in Melbourne, Australia at age 16, Rudolph was awarded her first medal, a bronze in the women’s 400-meter relay.
After suffering from pneumonia and polio at age eight, Rudolph heard from doctors that she would never walk again. No one could foresee that in eight years she would earn an Olympic medal, much less become known as the world’s fastest woman in 12 years.
Born the 20th of 22 children, she was accustomed to fighting for her place. That blazing spirit carried her to her first Olympic competition. Her determination and relentless dedication carried her even further.
During the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Rudolph truly made a name for herself. She competed in the 100-meter race, the 200-meter race, and the 400-meter team relay where she received gold medals in all three events, setting the record as the first woman from the United States to receive three gold medals in a single Olympic Game.
Upon her return to Clarksville, there would be a parade and ceremony in her honor, but she informed the coordinators that she was only willing to attend a biracial, unsegregated event. The coordinators agreed, and in the fall of 1960, Clarksville hosted its first large gathering that involved people of all races.
Rudolph sits bronzed outside of her namesake building, the Wilma Rudolph Event Center, at the entrance to Clarksville’s Liberty Park. Created by local artist Howard Brown, a graduate of Clarksville’s Austin Peay State University and a friend of Rudolph’s family, Brown didn’t start with a sketch or mockup; instead, he sat down and started working with the clay. Inevitably, he ended up creating Rudolph in her classic crossing-the-finish-line pose. The statue commemorates Rudolph doing what she is best known for, crossing the finish line first.
Today, the memorial statues of these remarkable and legendary champions anchor Liberty Park. Both are also showcased with exhibits in the Challenges and Championship Sports Gallery at the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center in downtown Clarksville.
"Clarksville has the unique distinction of being the birthplace of not just one, but two giants of women's sports in the 20th century," Mayor Kim McMillan said. "Pat Summitt and Wilma Rudolph were trailblazers, and it’s wonderful that our community has had the foresight to honor their legacies and share their stories for generations to come."
Note: Samantha Stoffregen, City of Clarksville, and Alyssa Huffman, Visit Clarksville intern, contributed to this story.