If ever you thought the odds against your success were overwhelming, wait until you read today’s story. Wilma was born black in deeply segregated Tennessee in 1940, the 20th of 22 children to a poor family.
Her father Ed, a railroad porter, also did odd jobs to supplement his income. Her mother Blanche was a maid and cooked and did laundry for wealthy white families.
Wilma was born premature and weighed just 4 ½ pounds, but because the local hospital was for whites only, she nearly died. As a little girl, Wilma contracted every parent’s nightmare of that era, polio, but again successfully fought for her life. Her doctor at all black Fisk University said Wilma would survive but she would never walk again.
But Wilma was determined to walk and from the age of 6 until she was 9, she wore a stiff brace on her left leg and foot, moving as best she could. As a result, her leg became twisted and she needed extensive and painful therapy, but there was no money to pay Fisk for that therapy and the university instead taught her family to do it.
Finally, at the age of 12, Wilma cast off the last of her leg braces and much to people’s surprise she could walk normally and participate in everyday events.
But also by the time Wilma was 12, she had suffered from life threatening scarlet fever, whooping cough and measles, chickenpox and double pneumonia. But each time she was nursed back to health by her family.
Because of her polio, Wilma was unable to attend school until she was 7, and was instead tutored by her family. When she finally could go to classes, it was to a poor downtrodden grade school for blacks only, with few educational resources
But then like the bright sun rising when a rain storm passes, life became much better for Wilma. Influenced by an older sister, Wilma took up basketball and despite all the health problems she had endured, later became a high school super star, setting state scoring records and guiding her team to the state championship.
Wilma also began to run track. It was during this time Tennessee State track and field coach Ed Temple met her, saw potential in her and began to train her. As a result, the surprisingly fast 16 year old Wilma made the 1956 U.S. Olympic Team. She returned from the Melbourne Games with a bronze medal.
After Wilma graduated from high school, all black Tennessee State awarded her a full scholarship to run for their track team. And in 1960 at the Olympic Games in Rome, Wilma became one of the world’s most famous athletes, as the first American woman to win 3 gold medals..
But the 1960’s also ushered in an entire new era in U.S. history, one that far transcended sports. After a century of intense and sometimes brutal segregation, civil rights became a huge issue and the famous and very personable Ms. Rudolph became a civil rights leader. She not only spoke for black civil rights, she spoke for women’s rights as well.
In her personal life, in 1963 Wilma married Robert Eldridge, who had been her high school sweetheart. They would have four children, but unfortunately she and Robert later divorced.
Yet despite all the activities in Wilma’s life, she hoped to set an outstanding example for others by becoming a college graduate and went back to school, earning a Bachelor’s Degree in education.
Subsequently, Wilma became a teacher and a track coach and she became a national and global television sports commentator.
Wilma seemed to be on top of the world. Then suddenly in July 1994; she was diagnosed with brain cancer. But unlike polio and all of her earlier diseases, she couldn’t beat cancer. Just four months later, on November 12, 1994, Wilma passed away in her Nashville, TN home at the age of 54.
Wilma’s passing was mourned all over the world, and her remarkable life was celebrated. Among her many awards, which included inductions into various Halls of Fame, was a commemorative U.S. postage stamp minted of her. But one honor in particular was very special.
It came posthumously when the state of Tennessee, a state Wilma played an important role in desegregating during the civil rights movement 30 years earlier, in 1997 recognized her birthday of June 23rd as “Wilma Rudolph Day.” From the darkest days of segregation, she and Tennessee had traveled a very long way together.