“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion. The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” Wilma Rudolph
June 1940 – Clarksville, Tennessee: Born pre-maturely, Wilma Rudolph weighed four pounds at birth. As a baby, she survived scarlet fever, then double pneumonia before being diagnosed with polio at age four. The doctor told Wilma’s mother, Blanche, the child would never walk again. Blanch refused to accept the diagnosis.
Finding a hospital to treat a black child with polio was a problem. Blanch found help for her daughter 50 miles away in Nashville at Meharry Hospital, a part of the African American medical school at Fisk University. Twice a week, Blanche took off from her job as a housemaid, and together she and Wilma road in the back of a Greyhound bus to Nashville where Wilma received physical therapy on her legs. She was fitted with a bulky below-the-knee brace on her left leg to help straighten her severely twisted foot.
Doctors prescribed massage therapy four times a day for Wilma to improve her mobility, so Blanche trained Wilma’s brothers and sisters to do the treatments. She also recruited the siblings to make sure Wilma kept the cumbersome brace on when she was outside playing. It took five years of intensive therapy before the brace was traded for high-top orthopedic shoes at age nine. Wilma wore the hideous corrective shoes for two years.
By age 12, Wilma was the fastest kid in her neighborhood. She was a basketball standout at Burt High School in Clarksville, setting the state record with 49 points in a single game. It was on the basketball court that Ed Temple, the women’s track coach at cross-town Tennessee State University, spotted her. He was so impressed with Wilma’s speed that he invited the 15-year-old to join his Tigerbelles track team for summer workouts. He likened the style of the 5’11”, 120-pound runner to that of a gazelle.
With Temple’s encouragement and expertise, Burt High School started a track team. In the team’s first season, the tall, lanky sophomore easily won all 20 of the events she entered at distances from 50 to 200 meter.
In July 1956 Coach Temple took several Tennessee State runners and Wilma to Seattle to compete in the Olympic Trials. The 16-year-old running sensation qualified for the U.S. team in the 200-meter race. That December in Melbourne, Australia, although she failed to medal in the 200, Wilma ran with three Tennessee State runners to win a bronze medal in the 400-meter relay.
On September 7, 1960, in Stadio Olimpico, the track and field venue, thundered “Vilma, Vilma, Vilma.” They had just watched Wilma Rudolph run the anchor leg of the 4 x 100 meter for the American team to win her third gold medal in the summer Olympics in Rome. Three days before, she had shocked the world by setting a world record in the 100-meter competition with a time of 11.0 seconds to win her first gold medal. A day later she won gold in the 200-meter sprint in a race that wasn’t even close.
Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to ever win three Olympic Gold Medals in track and field, earning her the distinction of “The Fastest Woman on Earth.”
During her induction into the Track and Field Hall of Fame in New York City in 1974, Wilma Rudolph shared with those in attendance, “My doctor said I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother. She reminded me that triumph can’t be had without the struggle.”