Written by Samiksha Goel
"We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us." –Wilma Rudolph
Running past the barriers: the Life and Career of Wilma Goldean Rudolph
On June 23, 1940, a Black couple living in Tennessee, working as housemaids and railway porters, prematurely gave birth to their twentieth child - a girl. That girl, soon after her birth, suffered from pneumonia, scarlet fever, and infantile paralysis (polio). The doctors said that she will never walk. All her early life, that girl lived with a brace on her left leg and was completely dependent on the care and support of her mother and siblings. A few years later, that girl, named Wilma Rudolph, became a world-record-holding Olympic champion and was famously acclaimed as the ‘fastest woman in the world.’ She later went on to become a social activist and spoke greatly and fearlessly on civil rights, rights for women, and African Americans.
The story of Wilma Rudolph is as inspiring as it gets. It is important to not only acknowledge her struggle and efforts but to also understand that what Wilma did gave her amazing success and recognition, and paved a better and fairer way for the women after her. Wilma’s story is an absolute validation to the fact that in the act of self-liberation, we liberate the world with us.
"My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother. - Wilma Rudolph"
Wilma believed what she wanted to believe. She simply refused to be oppressed, whether it was by nature who gave her such a cruel disease, or by the society, who saw her not as a person or an athlete, but only as a black woman.
Rudolph’s sports career started as a basketball player. But after her high school coach noticed that she was a natural athlete, she changed her path and took to running. It’s really amazing to know she was only in high school and was 16 when she won her first Olympic medal, a bronze, in 4 x 100-meter relay race. In the same year, she also completed in 200-meter dash but did not medal.
She was proud of her win, and happily showed her bronze Olympic medal to her classmates and family, but she was certain that she needed a gold medal. Maybe it was her will to strive for greatness, or the constant fight that she always held within her. Whether it was competing with polio, or her competitors at the Olympics, or all those who thought of less of her because of her gender or color, Wilma knew the world was much more than what was shown to her - probably much kinder and braver.
"It doesn't matter what you're trying to accomplish. It's all a matter of discipline. I was determined to discover what life held for me beyond the inner-city streets."
After high school, when she was enrolled at Tennessee University, she went back to the Olympics. It was the1960 Summer Olympics in Rome that made all the difference for Wilma, and in turn, for so many other female athletes. Wilma won 3 gold medals, becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals in the Olympics. She also broke a world record in a sprint that stood for eight years. Wilma Rudolph competed in three races, including one relay and two solos, and won gold in all of them. After that, she was crowned ‘the fastest woman in the world.’
Naturally, after 1960, Wilma became hugely popular, and for all the right reasons. Her story became a major source for inspiration for women all over the world, or for people suffering from physical disabilities, or for the colored community.
Wilma continued to run several years after her big win in 1960 and traveled the world taking part in major global sports events. During these years of her success, she was very vocal about civil rights and the struggle for women in athletics.
It was very surprising that at the peak of her success, she retired to become an elementary school teacher and school coach. She settled permanently in Tennessee. She was 54 when she died fighting her last battle with a brain tumor.
It can’t be stressed enough how important the story of Wilma Rudolph is, and how prevalent it will always be until we start to see everyone as equal. Wilma’s intersectionality because of her class, her race, her gender, and her disease didn’t stop her from doing what she had to do, but certainly made it more difficult for her than her other competitors. Of course, she made it against all odds, but not everyone does, and that’s the lesson Wilma Rudolph tried spreading throughout her life.
Sometimes it takes years to really grasp what has happened to your life. - Wilma Rudolph (June 23, 1940 – November 12, 1994)