A select few face overwhelming challenges in life. Encouraged with a heart filled with perseverance, these trailblazers adopt an attitude where “Can” outplays “Can’t.”
Olympics track star Wilma Rudolph overcame many obstacles in her life to achieve ultimate adoration for her speed and grace.
From the words of Wilma Rudolph: “Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit.”
Born in 1940, Wilma was born in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee. She was part of a large family with 21 siblings. Facing a challenging life in the segregated South, she found athletics to be her path forward in life.
However, before Wilma pursued basketball and later track, she faced major hurdles because of health issues. Born prematurely, she endured bouts with double pneumonia, scarlet fever, and polio. Her weakened left leg required her to wear a brace, and some doctors didn’t expect her to ever be able to run.
Wilma remembered her childhood journey with these words: “My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”
Eventually, her leg grew stronger, and the brace thankfully disappeared. She became active in sports during her high school years. She was recruited by the legendary track coach at Tennessee State University in Nashville, Ed Temple.
While still in high school, Wilma qualified for the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. At age 16, she was the youngest athlete on the U.S. team. As a member of the 4 x 100 meter relay, she earned a bronze medal.
After high school graduation, Wilma moved on to Tennessee State. This natural, gifted runner prepared and trained to return to the Olympics in 1960 at Rome, Italy. Nicknamed “Skeeter” by her teammates, Wilma was more than ready to compete.
At the Rome Olympics, Wilma became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympics. Competing individually in the 100 and 200 meters, she overwhelmed the other competitors for two gold medals. Wanting her teammates to also earn a cherished gold medal, Wilma anchored the winning 4 x 100 meter relay.
Accolades for Wilma continued to pour in following her Olympics’ exploits. Because of her speed, beauty, and grace, the Italian press nicknamed her “The Black Gazelle.” The Associated Press awarded her Female Athlete of the Year in 1960 and 1961.
Wilma retired from competition in 1962. She fulfilled her dream of earning a college degree. For a few years, her post-athlete life included teaching, coaching, and working with underprivileged children.
The story of this African-American girl overcoming polio, poverty, and racism became a film, “Wilma,” which was released in 1977.
The following video shares a few highlights of Wilma Rudolph’s life and Olympic career.