“My doctor told me I would never walk again,” Wilma wrote in her autobiography. "My mother told me I would. I believed my mother."
Every four years, the whole world stops and takes time to watch the race to find the fastest man and woman on earth. The heroics of Thunder Bolt – Lightning Usain and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce at 2012 London Games is still imprinted deep in the memories of every sports follower. But, the hard work and sufferings behind their success on the track often goes untold. The history of Olympics is filled with athletes whose battles and hard work started even before they set a foot on the track. The 1960 Olympics in Rome witnessed one of those stars – Wilma Rudolph, who overcame polio to become the fastest woman in the World. Doctor said she could not walk again, so she ran.
Wilma Glodean Rudolph was fast even before her birth. She was born prematurely in 1940 at Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee, as the 20th of her father Ed Rudolph’s 22 children and as the sixth of her mother Blanche’s eight. The little Wilma only weighed two kgs and had many illnesses to give her company. Measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever, and double pneumonia all kept her in the bed.
With poverty, racial discrimination, and illness all around her, Wilma grew up among her siblings in a standard wood-frame house in the part of town designated for black residences. By 1944, Polio also arrived, threatening to keep Wilma in the bed for the whole life.
My doctor told me I would never walk again."
“My doctor told me I would never walk again,” Wilma wrote in her autobiography. With a big family to feed and very little money around, the doctor’s words seemed like a prophecy to Wilma’s parents. But, her mother Blanche refused to give up. “My mother told me I would. I believed my mother,” Wilma wrote. Blanche took her daughter to Meharry hospital, the black medical college of Fisk University in Nashville, which was fifty miles away from Clarksville. A metal brace was fixed on her left leg and both Blanche and Wilma made the trip to Nashville every week for therapy.
The doctors also suggested massages on Wilma’s left leg and with a big family of sisters and brothers on her side, hands were never a problem. But, with a fast mind inside her, Wilma never wanted the metal brace to stop her. "I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to get them off," she wrote. But, her siblings always remained on the lookout to stop the mischievous Wilma from removing her braces.
Five years of massaging and Wilma’s determination stunned the doctors one day, when she removed her braces to walk in front of them. With her foot on the ground, Wilma’s speed amazed everyone. She joined her brothers and sisters in basketball and although she had an orthopaedic shoe, she was faster than everyone. By the time she was 12, Wilma had completely recovered from the illness that threatened to keep her on the bed.
With so many children, when you did something with one, you always had another along. He (father) felt that sports would help me overcome the problems."
“With so many children, when you did something with one, you always had another along. He (father) felt that sports would help me overcome the problems," Wilma wrote. With her father, mother, and siblings supporting her in her games, basketball brought Wilma into the limelight in Clarksville. Within two years into the sport, at the all-African-American Burt High School, she made the all-state after scoring 49 points in one match. Skeeter, as she was called by her basketball coach CC Gray, was destined for greatness and it was found by Ed Temple, who came looking for candidates for his athletics team.
Wilma was fast and was unbeaten in all her races in the debut season. But, Temple was a real taskmaster. Every athlete who arrived late to the practice was forced to run one lap for every minute they were late. Wilma once ran 30 laps for coming half an hour late to practice and she learned her lesson. Next day, Wilma arrived thirty minutes early for practice.
Impressed with her performances, Temple took Wilma to 1956 Olympic trials in Seattle and alongside other Tennessee state undergrads won the ticket to Melbourne. The 16-year-old, who had a metal brace on her leg five years before was now at the biggest stage for an athlete. When she returned from Melbourne to her school, a bronze medal was hanging around her neck. Along with Mae Faggs, Margaret Matthews, and Isabelle Daniels, Wilma finished third behind Australia and Great Britain to clinch a bronze for the USA in 4 x 100m relay.
“I took it and I started shining it up. I discovered that bronze doesn’t shine. So I decided I’m going to try this one more time. I’m going to go for the gold,” Wilma told the Chicago Tribune. The promise from Wilma was not just to the press. She made it her life’s mission. But, in her senior year, she became pregnant with her elder daughter Yolanda. She missed a year of competition because of that, but when she returned to the track she was faster than ever.
Temple was appointed to coach the USA women’s track and field team for the 1960 Olympics. But even with her coach at the helm, the selection trials were not easy for Wilma. A week before the trials, a bus driver refused to take the integrated team (which included African American athletes) and Wilma to the stadium for the national Amateur Athletic Union meet in Corpus Christie, Texas. A replacement driver was called and the team rushed to the stadium. In that event, Wilma qualified for the Olympic trials in three events, including a world record in the 200m. It was clear, nothing was going to stop her.
The troubles before Wilma and the Olympic gold did not end there though. A day before her 100m heats, Wilma twisted her ankle after stepping into a small hole in the field. But, with a protective strapping on her leg, she won the heats before going on to clinch the gold medals in 100m, 200m, and 4 x 100m relay.
The crowd at the Stadio Olimpico chanted “Wilma, Wilma”, while the press all-around the World praised the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field. The Black Gazelle, the Black Pearl, and the Tennessee Tornado all became her names. Nine years after removing the orthopaedic shoe from her leg, Wilma had become the fastest woman in the World. Four Olympic medals and two World records all looked like a stuff of dreams.
Citius - Altius – Fortius (Faster – Higher – Stronger). When Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympics, borrowed these words from his friend Henri Didon, a Dominican priest, for the Olympic motto, he would not have imagined the lengths an athlete will go through to climb those heights. Those three words were also engraved on the tombstone of Wilma's grave, when she passed away in 1994 due to cancer.
The struggle and hardships Wilma had to go through makes her story the most unique one in the history of Olympics. In her soft-spoken manner, the 5 feet 11 inches runner from Tennessee inspired a generation of athletes in the USA and worldwide. She proved to the whole world that dreams and human spirit can defeat any deficiencies. “Believe me, the reward is not so great without the struggle,” Wilma said, and there is no better person to tell the world about it.