From Polio to the Olympics: Wilma Rudolph

I wanted to share the story of someone who’s been inspiring my work lately. Her name’s Wilma Rudolph. I first heard of her just a couple of weeks ago when I was helping my first grader with his homework.

One of his distance learning assignments was to watch a narration of the children’s book Wilma Unlimited: How Wilma Rudolph Became the World’s Fastest Woman by Kathleen Krull. I was immediately captivated.

I learned that Wilma was the twentieth child of twenty-two. Her family was from Clarksville, Tennessee. Her dad worked as a train car porter. Her mom cleaned homes.

From the outset, Wilma’s life was beset with problems. She was born prematurely and only weighed four-and-half pounds. She then developed double pneumonia and scarlet fever.

At the age of four, she contracted polio and lost the use of her leg. However, her mom encouraged her to keep moving. Wilma found ways to get around the house and even to church.

Twice a week, she and her mom traveled fifty miles by bus to Nashville to visit doctors who would see black patients. The specialists recommended a massage therapy to help strengthen Wilma’s leg. Wilma’s mom learned it and then taught it to Wilma’s older siblings. The family gave these messages to Wilma four times a day.

Despondent that she couldn’t go to school because she couldn’t walk, Wilma kept working at her exercises until the doctors felt she was ready for a leg brace. This allowed her to go school, but she was still upset that she couldn’t run and play with her friends. So she pushed herself even harder at her physical therapy exercises until she was strong enough to walk without a brace. By the age of twelve, Wilma was running and playing and keeping up—and out-running—her friends.

In high school, she joined the basketball team. And while she was a great basketball player, she caught the eye of the women’s track coach at Tennessee State University. He mentored her and arranged for her to train with the university team during the summers.

And thus her track career was born. She was selected to compete in the Summer Olympics in Melbourne when she was sixteen. She won a bronze medal. At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, she went on to win the gold in the hundred and two-hundred meter dash and four-hundred-meter relay. She tied the world record in the hundred meter dash and broke the record for the two-hundred meter dash.

Her story’s been on my mind for weeks. I’ve been marveling at Wilma’s mom’s belief in her ability to recover from this disease when so few did. Her dedication to her daughter’s treatment was similarly remarkable. She and Wilma traveled those hundred miles by bus twice a week for two years. And I thought it was so beautiful that the entire family worked to help give Wilma her strengthening massages.

And Wilma herself–I can’t wrap my head around the grit and determination and hope she displayed throughout her life, but especially as a little girl when she had no tangible reason to believe that her situation would ever change. She once said, “My doctor told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”

The narration of Wilma Unlimited can be found here:

Here’s footage of Wilma at the Rome Olympics:

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