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The story of Wilma Rudolph is one of incredible perseverance. It’s a story about belief and ambition and overcoming long odds. The person known as “the fastest woman in the world” found herself up against poor health, rampant racism, sexism and a host of other issues, yet she went on to become one of the greatest athletes of all time anyway.
Wilma Rudolph simply wouldn’t be denied.
Born on June 23, 1940 in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee, Wilma was one of 22 children. With strong family support, she survived bouts with polio and scarlet fever in her youth. She was forced to wear a leg brace until she was 12 years old, losing almost all strength in her left leg. At one point, after her mother shuttled her back and forth twice a week to a black medical center 50 miles on the bus, her doctors dropped a bleak diagnosis on her — a fate that her mother refused to accept.
“My doctor told me I would never walk again, my mother told me I would,” Rudolph later said. “I believed my mother.”
It was her first act of defiance, but not the last. She did walk again. And then she ran. She ran on the hardwood of a basketball court, which wasn’t a miracle to her family so much as an act of pure will. After a chance meeting with a college coach, she ran to the sport of track and field, where she began changing the course of history and leaving her mark on the world. She wasn’t only running.
She was about to become a blur. Blurring out limitations. Blurring out racial attitudes and extreme prejudice. Blurring out antiquated notions of the woman’s place. A blur on the track — a “Black Tornado.” A legend who flashed through turbulent America and the world like a streak of shining light.
As a high school student Rudolph competed at the collegiate level. At age 16, just 10 years after learning how to walk, she competed at the 1956 Olympic games in Melbourne, Australia, taking home a bronze medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay. Then she became a global sensation. She set the world record for the 200-meter dash, which stood for nearly a decade. And she set her sights on Rome for the 1960 Summer Olympics.
Unspeakable? Undeniable. It was in Italy that she emerged as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. Wilma won three gold medals and broke a couple of world records. She became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at the same Olympic games, an achievement reminiscent of her childhood hero, Jesse Owens. That Olympic success turned her into a global sensation. An inspiration. A force of nature.
And a pillar of the civil rights movement. Wilma refused to attend her own homecoming back in the U.S. if it was not integrated. A year after receiving The Associated Press Female Athlete Of The Year for 1961, the woman whom doctors said would never walk — yet who earned nicknames of “The Flash,” “The Black Pearl,” and “The Black Gazelle,” as she rewrote the record books in track and field — retired from the sport. Armed with a degree from Tennessee State University, she went to work in education.
From start to finish, Wilma Rudolph led an extraordinary life. She helped change culture by showing that nothing’s impossible. Fleet of foot, and undeniable. In the course of life, we should all aspire to cross the finish line with the same vitality that Wilma did.