At 11 years old, Wilma’s mother caught her playing basketball outside–in her bare feet. No special shoe. No leg braces. Just bare feet and a grin that stretched ear to ear. That was the end of the helpless little girl and the beginning of a legend. From that moment on, she was a “normal” kid.
None of it had been easy.
In 1940, Wilma Rudolph was born dangerously premature. At only 4.5 pounds, no one expected her to live. Not the doctors. Not even her parents. But they would soon learn that this precious child of theirs was a fighter.
As a toddler, she battled pneumonia and scarlet fever.
She never seemed to stay healthy for long. And just when her parents, Ed and Blanche, thought she was out of the woods, she was stricken with polio. A deadly and debilitating disease that was largely untreatable in the early 1940’s.
He family watched as their frail, sickly child deteriorated again. This time, worse than before. Ravaged by the punishing effects of the disease. She became emaciated. Her left leg atrophied. She lived through it, but doctors were clear–she would never walk again on her own.
The best she could hope for was to walk with assistance.
At age four, she was fitted for a heavy, metal leg brace and a special shoe to try to correct her twisted leg. The doctor ordered physical therapy and heat and water therapy. Wilma would have to go twice a week.
Getting treatment was an outsized fiasco.
Because of segregation laws in her home state of Tennessee, Wilma could not be treated in her rural town of Clarksville. Her mother had to take her on the bus to Nashville, fifty miles away.
They all fought together to help Wilma get a second chance on life.
But little Wilma hated the brace. She hated the shoe. She hated not being able to play like the other kids. She just wanted a normal life. She wanted a normal leg.
At five years old, she decided that she was going to play with the other kids. She was going to have a normal life. She was going to have a normal leg. Whenever Wilma was by herself she would take off her brace and try walking.
But all she did was fall down.
Every time. She fell. Then she got back up. Five years old.
Through the pain and agony of walking on a dead limb. She had never wanted anything so badly in her short life.
She tried for a year. Nothing. She turned six and was still trying. 300 days of falls. Then 500. 700. More than 1,000. Getting stronger — but in agony.
She turned seven and was still trying. Her eighth birthday came and went. Still trying. Alone in her room. Alone in her yard. Alone with her determination.
It took her five years of agonizing practice. Almost 2,000 days. But it was worth it to her.
She shocked the doctors and her family one day by removing her leg brace and taking a few steps — shooting them all a triumphant smile.
That was the last day she ever wore the leg brace.
But she still had to wear an awkward orthopedic shoe. It was there to “make her life easier,” the doctors told her. She disagreed.
She was only nine when she decided that she was all done with any life that included leg braces or ugly shoes or special therapies.
It was when her mom caught her playing outside a few years later that she had a license to be awesome. Her parents told her to “just do her thing.” Which is exactly what she did.
It seemed like she never stopped moving.
At 13, she was running track for school. Her first season, Wilma ran five different events and won them all. She averaged 32 points per game for her high school basketball team. They nicknamed her “Skeeter”.
She was little. And fast.
Wilma spent her summers training on the Tennessee State University campus with Ed Temple, the man who discovered Wilma. Pushing her. Grooming her for greatness. Long before she was ready to start college.
Day after day in the blistering Tennessee summer sun.
Wilma had never even heard of the Olympics until high school. But as soon as she knew the Olympics existed, she wanted in. It didn’t matter that to her that she was black. It didn’t matter to her that she was a woman. She had been defying the odds since birth, and Wilma wanted an Olympic medal.
At sixteen, the summer before Wilma was set to start college, she made it to the Olympic trials in Seattle and qualified for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, but only in the 4x100m relay.
She lost her favorite race — the 200m.
Her relay team won a bronze medal, but she was strangely disappointed when she tried to polish it. Bronze doesn’t shine. Only gold does that. So gold she would have.
Wilma visualized herself standing on the podium. Not to the left. Not to the right. But in the middle. The high one. The one that came with the shiny gold medal.
She trained fiercely. Pushing herself to the limit. She pushed so hard that, two years before the 1960 Olympics, Wilma couldn’t run at all. She was sick. She was nauseous. She was weak.
She was pregnant.
Wilma gave birth to her daughter and had to fight to stay in college.
At the time, young mothers in college were unheard of and being a “young mother athlete” was something that never happened. But Wilma wanted what she wanted. And she wanted to run. She wanted an education. She wanted a gold medal.
After giving birth, she continued to train. She trained harder than she ever had. She had to get her strength back. She had to get her speed back. Nothing was going to slow her down.
After a year of relentless training, she was finally able to compete again, but Wilma pulled a muscle during a competition between the United States and the Soviet Union. Broken hearted, she did not win.
“Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion some day.”
Wilma returned to college to train.
Day after day. Meter after meter. She trained ferociously. She made it to the Olympic finals. She qualified. Finally, the day came for her ferocity to pay off.
She stood in the stadium, in Rome, what seemed like a million miles from home. She walked the track, letting her feet get a feel for the turf. Taking in the smell of the Italian air. Making a plan of action for the win that she was sure she would take this time.
But disaster was about to strike.
She was in her own head, daydreaming, not paying attention to where her next step was going. And stepped right in a hole. Violently wrenching her ankle. Looking down, she could see the swelling begin.
The pain seared in her foot, but not nearly as much as in her heart. She just ruined her chance at greatness. She lost, in one step, everything she had worked so hard for. Could this be happening? She wondered.
The answer was No. Wilma was not going to let it happen.
She controlled her destiny. She always had. Wilma wrapped her ankle for support and headed to her running lane. She had not trained this hard to stop now.
She could feel her heartbeat in her foot as she placed her hands on the warm track. The pain would have to wait until she crossed the finish line.
Three times that day, and in the Olympic days that followed, Wilma broke world records. She ran 100 meters in 11 seconds, 200 meters in 24 seconds, and she ran the final leg of the 4×100 meter for a team record of 44.5 seconds. All with a badly sprained ankle.
And she didn’t just barely win either. Wilma finished more than three yards in front of her closest competitor. The French nicknamed her “la gazelle” for her speed and grace, even with a damaged ankle.
Wilma Rudolph finally got to stand on the middle podium just like she dreamed — three times in seven days.
A record that had never been done before in the history of the Olympics.
She was invited to represent the USA in the 1964 Olympics but she declined. “I couldn’t top what I did, and I want to be remembered for when I was at my best.”
Wilma’s life continued on at a runner’s pace. She got her degree, married, became a teacher, had three more children, became a divorcee and a single mother of four. She opened and helped run numerous inner city sports clinics. She served as a consultant to university track teams. She founded her own organization, The Wilma Rudolph Foundation, to promote and fund amateur athletes. And she continued to fight for Civil Rights.
In 1994, the same year she was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame, she lost her life to brain cancer.
Through it all, from leg braces to Olympic champion, single mom to Civil Rights advocate, college degree to cancer — she never stopped fighting life on her own terms.
She didn’t buy into other people’s beliefs about what was possible for her.
She lived her life enduring the pain in the moment so that she could experience the wonders and glory of achieving greatness.
She defied the odds. She was persistent. While others gave up after listening to the advice of respected doctors and accepted their fate — she was absolute in her determination.
Her life is an inspiration for how you can achieve everything you’ve ever wanted. The truth is that it’s going to cost you pain. Success is going to demand more from you than you think possible. People are going to tell you that what you want to do isn’t possible. That it can’t be done. That you are just wasting your time.
You have to fight for yourself. You have to fight for your dream.
You have to fight for your chance at achieving greatness.
No one owes you anything. You aren’t promised fairness. You aren’t even promised another day. All you have is what you make of yourself and the opportunities around you. That’s what Wilma did. That’s what we should all do.
Tennessee lowered their flags to half mast to honor the passing of Wilma Rudolph and her legend.
Three years later, on June 23rd, the state declared that day Wilma Rudolph Day and in 2004, the US post office created a stamp in her honor reminding us all that “triumph can’t be had without the struggle.”