“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.”
Wilma Rudolph knew a thing or two about adversity. Throughout her life, she had to overcome being crippled at a young age, poverty in her youth, the discrimination of being a woman, and the prejudice she faced as an African American. Yet through it all, she remained strong and steadfast, eventually rising above her challenges to become a celebrated Olympic athlete and a role model to young girls across the nation, both black and white.
Wilma Rudolph was born in rural Tennessee in 1940, one of 22 children (from two of her father’s marriages). As a young child, she suffered from pneumonia, scarlet fever, and eventually polio, leaving her without the use of her left leg by the age of 6. Because of this affliction, she was forced to wear leg braces, although she spent most of her time trying to take them off. Every day, one of her many siblings would massage her leg, and she travelled 90 miles round trip each week to receive treatment for her crippled limb. Although she went on to suffer from whooping cough, the measles, and chicken pox, she eventually gained enough use of her leg to discard the braces and wear a special shoe instead. Wilma was determined to live life as a regular kid, however, and within a few years she had discarded the shoe as well.
Such persistence and determination manifested itself throughout her athletic career. Rudolph took up the game of basketball and emerged as a star on the girls’ team at the all-black Burt High School. Her exemplary play and remarkable athletic ability eventually led the Tennessee State track coach, Ed Temple, to take an interest in her as a track athlete. Rudolph began attending the college practices while still in high school, then went on to enroll at Tennessee State in 1957. Wilma fell in love with running and began gaining national attention for her performances on the track. She qualified for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and it was there that she would finally burst forward onto the world track scene and emerge as an international athlete.
In Rome, Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win 3 gold medals in an Olympics. There, she earned a gold medal in the 100 meters, the 200 meters, and the 4×100 meter relay, earning the title of “World’s Fastest Woman” along the way. Almost immediately, she became a media darling. Dubbed “The Black Pearl”, fans and press alike flocked to her in Rome, and subsequent competitions across Europe brought hoards of fans to watch her perform. That year, she was also named the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year, as well as the United Press Athlete of the Year. Rudolph’s immense international popularity paved the way for other African American athletes, especially minority women, as she inspired young girls across the US to play sports and break into the world of track and field.
When she returned home to Tennessee following her legendary performance in Rome, Wilma Rudolph was invited to a celebration headed by Governor Buford Ellington, a prominent segregationist. Rudolph refused, saying she would not attend a segregated event. Later, a parade and celebration of her accomplishments in her hometown of Clarksville would become the first integrated event the city had ever seen. By establishing herself as a universal hero and champion athletic figure, Rudolph was able to unite her fans behind her in ways that had not previously been accomplished, whether they were white or black, male or female. She set a new precedent for not only the black athlete, but the female as well, allowing those who had previously suffered from prejudice and discrimination in the world of sports to emerge in their own ways.
The most notable of these was Florence Griffith Joyner, an African American track star who would also go on to win three gold medals in the 1988 Olympics. Rudolph recognized her influence and was extremely proud of the accomplishments made by Joyner. “It was a great thrill for me to see,” Rudolph said. “I thought I’d never get to see that. Florence Griffith Joyner — every time she ran, I ran.” Ultimately, Rudolph’s exemplary grace, calm, and courage would establish her as one of the most prominent and influential African American athletes of the 60’s, one who set a new precedent for minority female athletes and inspired girls across America to pursue their goals in the face of discrimination.
Roberts, M.B. “Rudolph Ran and World Went Wild.” ESPN.com. ESPN: The Worldwide Leader in Sports, n.d. Web. 25 Jan. 2013.