An inspiring story about overcoming adversity.
Wilma Rudolph was born in 1940 in Bethlehem, Tennessee, the second youngest of 22 siblings from her father’s two marriages. She was premature at just 4.5 pounds. She also born to an impoverished black family in the racially segregated South of that time. The deck was stacked against her in many ways, and it was especially stacked against her ever being an Olympic track and field athlete
Illness and Perseverance
She suffered from serious illnesses in her early childhood, including pneumonia and scarlet fever as well as contracted infantile paralysis caused by the polio virus at the young age of four. She was so physically disabled in her left leg and foot for much of her early life, that Wilma had to wear a leg brace until she was eight years old, like Tom Hanks’ character in the movie Forest Gump.
After two years of weekly 50-mile bus trips to Nashville for therapy at Meharry Medical College to regain the use of her leg along with home massage treatments four times a day with the help of her family members, and after wearing a special orthopedic shoe for another two years, Wilma was able to walk without the aid of the leg brace or orthopedic shoe by the time she was twelve. A great start!
At Clarksville, Tennessee’s all-black Burt High School, Wilma, who was disabled in her legs for most of her early life, became a basketball and track and field star! Her high school basketball coach called her “Skeeter” (Southern for “mosquito”) because she was so fast. When Tennessee State’s famed track and field coach, Ed Temple saw Wilma run as a tenth grader, he knew he’d spotted a natural athlete.
The Rising of a Star
Temple coached her at TSU while she was still a high school student and sent her to compete in an Amateur Athletic Union track meet in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where she won all nine events. At the age of 16, Wilma qualified to compete in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, where she and a team of three other runners, all from TSU, won the bronze medal in the 4 x 100 m relay matching the world record speed to do so.
Wilma returned to Tennessee and showed her high school classmates the bronze medal she had won, and resolved to win a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. While still in high school, she became pregnant with her first child, and gave birth just a few weeks before enrolling at Tennessee State University in Nashville to compete in track on the collegiate level.
A Star is Born
As a sophomore in college, Wilma Rudolph set a world record in the 200-meter dash at the US Olympic Track and Field team trials in Fort Worth, TX. The record stood for eight years. At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Wilma competed in the 100- and 200-meter sprints, as well as the 4 × 100-meter relay, and won gold medals in all three events.
She was the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympiad, and after these career defining wins, Wilma Rudolph was hailed around the world as the fastest woman in history!