When Wilma’s mother was told by doctors at the hospital in shville that her child would never walk again, she refused to believe it. Life was difficult enough for her poor household. She was slogging as a cleaning maid, her husband as railway porter. There were many mouths to feed, Wilma the 20th of 22 children from her father’s two marriages.
Four years back in 1940 when Wilma was born two months premature and much underweight, her mother had feared she wouldn’t survive. Then she contracted one disease after another — mumps, chickenpox, scarlet fever and double pneumonia. As she remained bedridden, Wilma’s left leg slowly became twisted. At the hospital, her mother got the bad news. Wilma had polio.
Undaunted, Wilma’s mother learnt physiotherapy from the doctors and taught it to her elder children. The family made sure Wilma got her leg massage at least four times a day. Before long, she was given metal braces to help her walk. But she hated them. She yearned to run around like other kids and go to school.
When she was nine years old, Wilma decided enough was enough. Against the advice of doctors, she threw away the braces. Two years later, she discarded her orthopedic shoes too. Then one day, she maged to walk into church on her own. She had won her first battle.
Wilma was soon joining her brothers and sisters in basketball games at the home backyard and running street races against other children. “By the time I was 12, I was challenging every boy in our neighborhood at running, jumping, everything,” she would reminisce years later. Before long, she got involved in organized sports at school, including basketball and track.
While representing her school in the state basketball championships, Wilma caught the eye of Ed Temple, the women’s track coach at Tennessee State University. Convinced she had the potential to be a champion runner — Temple invited her to train with the varsity women’s track & fields team, even though she was at high school.
Wilma was soon learning about racing strategy, breath control and pacing her starts. Before long, she had built up the stami and physical strength to go with her steely spirit. Still a high school sophomore in 1956, she was invited to compete in the heats for the US tiol Olympics team.
Wilma made the grade, went to Melbourne Olympics and returned with a bronze in the 100-metres relay. Beginning college in 1958 at Tennessee State University, she now set her sights for 1960 Rome Olympics. A sprained ankle could not dent her resolve to compete in three separate events there. She broke records while winning the 100 meter and 200 meter races with 3-yard margins, destroying the competition.
While anchoring the US team in the 400-metres relay, Wilma had to make up for a dropped baton pass, but she still came from behind to win with a 0.3 seconds margin. She had to, for she had dedicated the race to her idol Jesse Owens, the black American who had so stunned Hitler in 1936 with four golds at Berlin Olympics.
Thus Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympics. The ‘black gazelle’ retired two years later, aged just 22 and still the world’s fastest woman. After taking her degree in education, she went on to be a teacher, athletic coach and public speaker — an inspiration for generations of black athletes.
“Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday,” she would say.
And her stirring run to greatness began as a sickly, crippled child faced with a choice of whom to believe. In Wilma’s words: “My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”