Wilma Rudolph: an American Hero's Lasting Example of Triumph Under Pressure

Stephen ThompsonContributor IMay 16, 2012

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There are many stories of beating long odds in the world of sports.

And then there is the story of Wilma Glodean Rudolph.   

Wilma Rudolph has an incredibly inspiring tale of triumph over adversity. Rudolph faced an uphill battle right from her very first moment on this earth.  She was born prematurely on June 23, 1940 at 4.5 pounds in a still-segregated Clarksville, Tennessee. 

Due to the racial inequality of the time, the newly born Rudolph and her mother didn’t have access to basic hospital care.

In just her first few years of life, Rudolph had to fight through measles, mumps, chicken pox and double pneumonia with only her mother’s aid.  The Rudolph’s were finally forced to relent to doctor’s care when they found weakness and deformity in her left leg.

This young, struggling child was given the dire diagnosis of polio and told she would never walk. Wilma’s mother refused to accept that fate for her young daughter and found a place where she could receive treatment at the black medical college at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. 

It was 50 miles away from their home in Clarksville.

Wilma and her mother made this trip twice a week for two years until the day she gained the ability to walk with a metal brace.  From there, Mrs. Rudolph and the rest of the family aided in Wilma’s physical therapy, helping to will the young girl back to health. 

At the age of 12, Wilma could finally walk without the assistance of crutches, braces or corrective shoes.

She decided to get involved in athletics, joining her junior-high basketball team.  Battling through all of that hardship just to play junior-high basketball would have been enough.

But not for Wilma Rudolph. 

Tennessee State track coach Ed Temple saw her in the state basketball tournament.  This would change the course of her life forever.

Since her high school didn’t have the funds to field a track team, he invited her to participate in a summer track camp at the college.  This led Rudolph to compete for the United States track and field team in the 1956 Olympics, just four years after removing her leg brace.

At just 16 years of age, Rudolph took home a bronze medal as part of the 4x100 meter relay.  Another four years went by and she found herself at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, winning the 100 meters, 200 meters and anchoring the winning 4x100 meter relay team.  She became the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics.

Following her stunning performance in Rome, Rudolph made even more significant history on a social level. 

She insisted that her homecoming parade and subsequent banquet be open to all residents.  The parade was the first racially integrated event in Clarksville and the banquet marked the first time that blacks and whites had gathered for the same event in the town’s history.

While inspiring and impressive, Wilma Rudolph’s story isn’t one about a singular, courageous person.  Hers is a story about family and community—a story about how all of us need help along the way to whatever our destiny may be.

Wilma Rudolph had the strength of her mother to rely on along with the care, will and reinforcement from her 21 brothers and sisters.  She also inspired a broken town of separated people who were willing to come together to celebrate her success as one proud group.

Wilma Rudolph made a huge impact on society–for African Americans, for women and for all people who have hurdles to clear.  It’s been 52 years since her last Olympic gold medal but, despite the time that’s elapsed, her story of courage, will, love and family will live on forever.

Presented by MetLife. I Can Do This.