Inspirational Athletes

The Fastest Woman In The World: Wilma Rudolph

By Graciela Sholander

Can a child weakened by polio, scarlet fever, whooping cough, chicken pox, and double pneumonia even dream of growing up to become an athlete? Young Wilma Rudolph did, despite the fact that she’d been plagued by one childhood disease after another. From the time she was six until she was nine years old, Wilma constantly wore metal leg braces because polio had debilitated her legs, yet she was determined to walk again and ultimately experience the freedom of running without limits. Her persistence enabled her to reach her goals, and then some. By the time she was twenty, Wilma was known internationally as the “fastest woman in the world.”

Her amazing accomplishments didn’t come by easily. Even at birth, the odds were against her. She was born prematurely, weighing only 4 ½ pounds. She came into the world a black person at a time when blacks in America were denied the privileges and advantages that whites enjoyed. Her family was poor, with her mother Blanche working as a housecleaner and her father Ed employed by a railroad company.

While her family didn’t have material wealth, they had something infinitely more valuable: plenty of love and support for each other. There were times when Wilma and her sisters had to wear dresses made of rough flour sack cloth, since there wasn’t enough money to buy regular fabric. But surrounded by her loving family Wilma always felt she could accomplish anything. She learned early in life to dream big and to go after those dreams.

Blanche was Ed’s second wife, and altogether he had 22 children. Wilma was the 20th born into the family. Because of her many illnesses, she was tutored at home for several years by her parents, sisters, and brothers. She and her siblings grew up in Tennessee, a place that remained close to Wilma’s heart even when she began traveling around the world and meeting famous people as an adult.

When she contracted polio at such a young age, doctors said she’d never walk again. Her mother refused to accept this prognosis. For more than two years Blanche took her daughter to a black medical college for therapy every week. She also helped Wilma do physical therapy exercises at home. “My doctors told me I would never walk again,” Wilma recounted years later. “My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”

The whole family rallied around her. Older siblings helped their little sister do her therapeutic exercises four times a day. They massaged her legs to keep her circulation going. Wilma couldn’t stand to wear her braces because they confined her terribly. She was always trying to figure out a way to get them off. But like it or not, she needed to wear them. Whenever she tried to take them off, someone was around to stop her and gently put them back on.

Years went by before she could walk normally without the help of braces, crutches, canes, or special shoes. Thanks to her resolve, her family’s love and support, and everybody’s persistence, Wilma defied the doctors. “My mother taught me very early to believe I could achieve any accomplishment I wanted to,” she explained. “The first was to walk without braces.” She reached a major milestone when she was able to walk without any assistance at the age of twelve.

She had a lot of catching up to do. For years Wilma had looked forward to the day when she could finally do what the other kids got to do: play, run around, do sports, have fun. Now the moment had arrived, and she was not about to waste precious time. Wilma decided she’d become an athlete, and she was willing to work hard to reach her goal. Once her brothers set up a hoop in their yard, Wilma started playing basketball.

They taught her how to shoot hoops. They taught her the rules of the game. Before long, Wilma was surpassing her brothers and sisters. That wasn’t enough for her. She sought greater and greater challenges. “By the time I was 12 I was challenging every boy in our neighborhood at running, jumping, everything,” she said. And of course, playing basketball.

Wilma watched one of her sisters play basketball at school, and in junior high she decided to join the team. Her coach nicknamed her “Skeeter” because she was small but fast. At first she spent more time watching from the sidelines than playing in the games. Once her coach gave her the chance to play, though, there was no stopping her. Wilma became an all-state player and set several records.

While playing in a state basketball tournament, she was spotted by Ed Temple, the track and field coach at Tennessee State University. He was impressed by her agility, speed, and ability to focus completely on the task at hand. She’d make a great member of his track team, he felt. Ed invited Wilma to a sports training camp at Tennessee State.

Coach Temple believed in Wilma and in her abilities, and he always encouraged her to do her best. That dedication to excellence by student and coach paid off. At the age of 16, Wilma participated in the 1956 Olympics halfway around the world in Australia. She and her team won the bronze medal for the four by 100 meter relay. As exciting as this was, it was only a taste of what was yet to come.

Two years after her Olympic victory, Wilma started college at Tennessee State and became a fulltime member of the track team. She trained hard and pushed herself to run faster and faster, never letting her childhood illnesses get in her way. By 1960, she was one of the fastest people alive. Once again she was bound for the Olympics, having set a new world record for the 200 meter dash during the trials.

Along with other talented American athletes, Wilma flew to Rome to compete in the 1960 summer Olympics. Competition in the track and field events was fierce. Many favored the German team. But when the competition was over, all eyes were on the Americans. Wilma won the 100 and 200 meter races. She also helped her team win the four by 100 meter relay. Victory was especially sweet for Wilma because all four relay runners came from Tennessee State.

Wilma Rudolph became a household name. Breaking several speed records, she became known as “the fastest woman in the world.” She also achieved a remarkable first: she became the first American woman to win three gold medals during one Olympic Games. The world embraced her, and fans sought her. She was quick to bring attention back to her teammates. Wilma said her favorite victory was the relay because she got to stand on the platform together with her relay team. But the world wanted Wilma.

She became known as “La Gazella” and “The Black Pearl.” Everywhere she went to compete – England, Greece, Italy, Germany – fans wanted to watch Wilma run and hear the press interview her. All of a sudden she was famous, but she knew that with her fame came both responsibility and opportunity.

“When I was going through my transition of being famous,” she said, “I tried to ask God why was I here? What was my purpose? Surely, it wasn’t just to win three gold medals. There has to be more to this life than that.”

She seized the opportunity to make a difference after returning to Tennessee. Her state’s governor, justifiably proud of Wilma’s achievements, scheduled a homecoming parade in her honor. She was flattered, but she also felt that it was time to take a stand. Her town had been segregated her entire life. Yet as she traveled around the world, she saw people of different races gathered together at sporting events, in restaurants, in buses. Why was the U.S. practicing segregation of races? It was wrong. Wilma insisted that her homecoming parade be open to all people. If the authorities made it a segregated event, she would not attend.

The governor honored her wishes. As Wilma was chauffeured down the parade route, she saw black and white fans cheering her on together. Both the parade and the banquet held in her honor became the first ever integrated events in her hometown. Wilma was getting an answer to the questions she had asked God. She realized that her dual purpose was to use her fame to help end segregation in her country and to inspire budding black athletes.

Wilma’s amazing speed on the field coupled with her incredible story of surviving polio and other childhood illnesses made her a sought after speaker. People wanted to know who Wilma was and how she had become such a fast runner. They were captivated by her grace and quiet dignity. This powerful combination stirred the public’s imagination, reminding people of their own dreams and making her a perfect ambassador and speaker.

Countless groups sought her. She became a Goodwill Ambassador representing the United States at the Games of Friendship in Dakar. She accompanied fellow athletes and Billy Graham in Japan with the Baptist Christian Athletes. She participated in “Operation Champ,” traveling to cities across the U.S. to coach and inspire disadvantaged youths.

Wilma married her high school sweetheart, and together they had four children. She became a school teacher and a high school coach, but the public wanted more of Wilma. She frequently was invited to speak at universities and other institutions. Wherever she went, she shared her quiet wisdom to help motivate others to reach for the stars.

Among those she motivated were future great athletes, including track stars Florence Griffith Joyner and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, both of whom became Olympic medalists. She also motivated countless through the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a nonprofit organization she created to motivate kids and teens to be their best.

Her athletic achievements and dedication to helping younger generations earned her numerous recognitions. Her awards include the Babe Zaharias Award, the Associated Press Woman Athlete of the Year, the James E. Sullivan Award for Good Sportsmanship, and the Women’s Sports Foundation Award. Later in life she was honored by being inducted into the Black Sports Hall of Fame and the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.

She continued to coach and do public speaking, and she also became a T.V. sports commentator and a radio show co-host. Wilma recorded her amazing life story in her autobiography, which became a bestseller. The book later was adapted into a movie.

No doubt about it, Wilma Rudolph managed to create a beautiful life for herself. She overcame one obstacle after another, choosing to listen not to the doubters but to the voices of hope and inspiration instead. She turned every negative into a positive. Her childhood illnesses gave her strength and determination. Living under segregation, she learned to carry herself with quiet dignity even in the face of ignorance.

Ever supported by her loving family, Wilma strove to be her best, in the process becoming the fastest woman in the world. She searched her soul, asking what it meant for her to be a famous celebrity, until she realized it meant she had the opportunity to help bring about much needed social change. Wilma helped end segregation in her hometown. She had a way of bringing people together and giving them hope. Just as her mother had taught her to believe in herself, Wilma helped countless others, black and white, young and old, to believe in themselves.

“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit,” Wilma Rudolph once said. “We are all the same in this notion. The potential for greatness lives within each of us.”

Inspirational Athletes