With current news of rising women athletic stars and the WNBA champs Seattle Storm being honored in my home city, today’s focus is on this woman who inspired others in known and unknown ways. The new champs now are the ripples inspiring girls and boys right here, right now.
Wilma Glodean Rudolph (June 23, 1940 – November 12, 1994) was an American sprinter from Clarksville, Tennessee, who became a world-record-holding Olympic champion and international sports icon in track and field following her successes in the 1956 and 1960 Olympic Games.
Wilma Rudolph had the world against her from the start. As a child, Wilma Rudolph overcame polio to become an Olympic sprint champion. This made her an American icon and a role model. Wilma was the 20th of 22 children. As a young child she was paralyzed by polio, and contracted both scarlet fever and double pneumonia. Many doctors felt she would never walk again, yet she always believed otherwise. By the time she was 12, she had regained her ability to walk and took up athletics. Eight years later she was an Olympic champion.
As an Olympic champion in the early 1960s, Rudolph was among the most highly visible black women in America and abroad. She became a role model for black and female athletes and her Olympic successes helped elevate women’s track and field in the United States. Rudolph is also regarded as a civil rights and women’s rights pioneer. In 1962 Rudolph retired from competition at the peak of her athletic career as the world record-holder in the 100- and 200-meter individual events and the 4 × 100-meter relay. After competing in the 1960 Summer Olympics, the 1963 graduate of Tennessee State University became an educator and coach. Rudolph and her achievements are memorialized in a variety of tributes, including a U.S. postage stamp, documentary films, and a made-for-television movie, as well as in numerous publications, especially books for young readers.
Her brilliant career ended with her retirement in 1962, after which she devoted herself to coaching and worked extensively with underprivileged children. Rudolph died from a brain tumor at the age of 54. Her legacy lives on and is an inspiration to all who need a role model to give them hope and courage. Because of her determination, others see what grit looks like and sometimes our difficulties just don’t look so dismal.
Today’s athletes have the advantages of good role models, good training and optimal diets and that can extend their careers. Each generation has given the next one tools to use to succeed. Wilma showed us, first and foremost, it takes grit and determination…and courage. This, too, is where hope comes from when watching others overcome adversities, whether personal or physical.