I chose to speak about Wilma Rudolph, a track athlete who demonstrated true perseverance overcoming many obstacles in life to achieve many great things.
Wilma Rudolph was a famous track star. Born in 1940, in Clarksville, Tennessee, the 20th child of 22 kids to Ed and Blanche Rudolph. They were a poor, black family during a segregated time of our history. Wilma was premature at 4.5 pounds. She was a sickly child. She had one illness after another: measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox, double pneumonia. She was not able to start school until she was 8 because of all her illnesses. Then, at a young age, she contracted polio. Polio left many crippled and Wilma was told by her Doctor that she would never walk. Her mother had a different plan and told Wilma she would walk. Wiima decided to believe her mother. Since Wilma was black, she was not allowed in the local hospital. Her mother found a black medical college 50 miles away that she could go to. They went twice a week and were taught how to do the physical therapy at home where her brothers and sisters helped everyday. By the age of 12, (some say age 9) Wilma could walk, without the aid of braces or crutches.
What did Wilma do with her newly usable legs? She decided to follow in her sisters footsteps and join the basketball team. There she was benched for 3 straight years, the coach did not let her play. Then in her final year, she was allowed to play and she was actually quite good. In fact, she was nick-named “skeeter” because of her speed and agility. The team won the State Championships while Wilma won records for the most scoring. The head track coach from Tennessee State University noticed her and recruited her to run track. She lost every race in her first meet. At the age of 16, she competed in the Olympics and won a bronze medal. 4 years later, she went to Rome, Italy and was the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in 1 Olympics. She won the 100, 200, and 4x100 which was her favorite since she got to share the podium with her fellow teammates from Tennessee State University.
Wilma was adored by many around the world. She was nick-named “The Black Pearl” and “The Black Gazelle.” She did not simply glorify herself though, she served her community and fought for what she believed in. She fought to end segregation and started her mission by insisting that her victory parade after the Olympics would be integrated. It was the first time in her hometown that blacks and whites celebrated together. She also participated in community service by helping kids who would not otherwise have a chance to join athletics by providing free coaching and academic assistance. She started the Wilma Rudolf Foundation to provide children with athletic programs so that they too could have goals and aspirations.
Some other facts about Wilma:
- She was inducted into the Olympic Hall of Fame in the 1980’s.
- Wilma got her degree and taught school and coached track at her hometown.
- Wilma won many awards including the Associated Press’ Woman Athlete of the Year in 1960 and 1961.
- She later went on the become a t.v. sports commentator.
- Jackie Joyner-Kersee said that Wilma inspired her the most and considered her a close friend.
- She is featured on the 23 cent stamp.