An excerpt from Finish Strong by Dan Green.
On June 23rd, 1940 Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born prematurely and weighed only 4.5 pounds. Wilma became the 20th of 22 children of Ed and Blanche Rudolph. The Rudolph’s were African Americans living in a time of segregation. Since the local hospital was for whites only and since the Rudolph’s had little money, Mrs. Rudolph was forced to care for Wilma herself. Wilma’s early years were very rough. Her mother nursed Wilma through one illness after another – measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox, and double pneumonia.
A few years after her birth, they discovered that Wilma’s left leg and foot were not developing normally and that they were becoming deformed. The doctors told Blanche that Wilma had polio, that she would never walk and that she would have to wear steel braces on her legs. Mrs. Rudolph refused to accept this diagnosis and she set out to find a cure. She discovered that Wilma could receive treatment at Meharry Hospital in Nashville.
For the next two years, Mrs. Rudolph drove Wilma 50 miles each way to get physical therapy. Eventually, the hospital staff taught Mrs. Rudolph how to do the physical therapy at home. Everyone in the family worked with Wilma, providing her with encouragement to be strong and to get better. Thanks to patience, support, effort and love from her family, at the age of 12, Wilma could walk normally without the assistance of crutches, braces or corrective shoes. She had spent a great deal of her life limited by her illnesses. Wilma felt a freedom that she never felt. It was then that Wilma decided to become an athlete.
She chose first to pursue basketball just as her older sister did. For three years she rode the bench – not playing a single game. But, Wilma’s spirit was forged from steel and she continued to practice hard, refusing to give up. In her sophomore year she became the starting guard for the team and subsequently led the team to a State Championship. But Wilma’s first love was to run.
At the age of sixteen (barely four years free of braces) Wilma participated in the 1956 Olympics in track. She won a bronze medal in the 4x100m relay. However, it was at the state basketball tournament that she was first spotted by Ed Temple, the coach for the women’s track team at Tennessee State University. Ed recruited Wilma on a track scholarship and changed the course of her athletic pursuit.
Wilma’s most famous athletic achievement was realized at the 1960 Rome Olympics. The little girl that could hardly walk without assistance of crutches or braces had overcome her challenges and would become the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics.
“My mother taught me very early to believe I could achieve any accomplishment I wanted to. The first was to walk without braces.” – Wilma Rudolph
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