We cannot think of being acceptable to others until we have first proven acceptable to ourselves – Malcolm X
Wilma Rudolph was an American sprinter and the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympics.
Born on June 23, 1940, in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, Rudolph was the 20th of 22 children across her father’s two marriages.
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A sickly child, Rudolph was hit by double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio as a child, as a result, she could not walk without an orthopedic shoe until she was 11, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica.
Biography.com reported that with a brace on Rudolph’s left leg, it was with great willpower, resolve and fortitude as well as the help of physical therapy that she overcame her disabilities, setting the stage for the history that would follow.
It was reported that at the age of nine Rudolph took all and sundry aback when she shanked off the brace and walked without it. “There really wasn’t much to do but dream,” she wrote in her 1977 autobiography.
Rudolph accepted her condition and was bent of reversing it as she couldn’t think of being acceptable to others until she had first proven acceptable to herself. It took her a few more years to move normally.
A lover of sports, Rudolph participated in basketball games in the summer after sixth grade.
She would soon be drafted to train with Tennessee State University track coach Ed Temple.
“Running, at the time, was nothing but pure enjoyment for me,” she later wrote per Outside. “I loved the feeling of freedom… the fresh air, the feeling that the only person I’m really competing against in this is me. The other girls may not have been taking it as seriously as I was, but I was winning and they weren’t.”
The “Skeeter” she was nicknamed due to her exceptionalism on the track. Rudolph’s first Olympic would be the 1956 Summer Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia.
According to Biography.com, as the youngest member of the United States track and field team at the age of 16, Rudolph picked up a bronze medal in the 400×100-meter relay.
Also, she advanced to the semifinals of the 200-meter event but crushed for the final.
The bronze medal whipped an indescribable excitement in her, heightening her desire for more glories. And four years later at the 1960 Olympic held in Rome, Italy Rudolph etched her name beautifully in the history of the games.
Rudolph won every race she participated; the 100 meters, the 200 meters, and, with Barbara Jones, Martha Hudson, and Lucinda Williams, the 4×100-meter relay, setting another world record.
After her third gold spectators went ballistic, Outside reported. She was mobbed by microphone-wielding reporters, who dubbed her the fastest woman in the world, the website reported.
Capitalizing on her newfound stardom, Rudolph became outspoken on the injustices faced by African Americans and other minorities in the United States.
“To talk about Wilma Rudolph, you have to talk about Jim Crow, you have to talk about racism in America, you have to talk about poverty and gender,” said Louis Moore, a professor of history at Michigan’s Grand Valley State University and author of We Will Win the Day: The Civil Rights Movement, the Black Athlete, and the Quest for Equality. “When we tell Wilma’s story, it’s not just to say, ‘Well, she triumphed, so can you, too.’ It’s also about being open and real about why so many people struggle who come from those backgrounds—backgrounds this nation created with Jim Crow and forced poverty.”
Rudolph retired at 22 in 1962 to spend time with her family. She died in 1994, at age 54, of brain cancer.
Remembered as one of the fastest women in track and field as a source of great inspiration for generations of athletes, Rudolph once stated, “Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday.”
In 2004, the United States Postal Service honored the Olympic champion by featuring her likeness on a 23-cent stamp.