Track and field star Wilma Rudolph

“The Wilma Rudolph story is the stuff of fairy tales, only in her case the fairy tale came true.” – Sports Illustrated: November 21, 1994

Black-and-white photograph of Wilma Rudolph holding an umbrella, standing in profile. She is wearing a dark blazer with a badge that reads 'USA' over a light-colored shirt with a dark tie. She appears to be smiling slightly and looking off to the side, with a candid expression, holding a booklet in her other hand. There are indistinct figures and what appears to be an airplane in the blurred background, suggesting a busy setting.
Wilma Rudolph

Born on June 23, 1940, in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee, Wilma Rudolph grew up in nearby Clarksville, where significant health challenges marked her early years. Wilma was born a couple of months prematurely, weighing just 4.5 pounds. Then, she encountered early childhood illnesses, including pneumonia and scarlet fever. And at the age of five, she contracted polio, which caused infantile paralysis and resulted in a weakened left leg and foot. “My doctor told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother,” Wilma said.

Treatment required Wilma and her mother to travel around 50 miles to Meharry Medical College in Nashville weekly, as medical care for black Americans was limited in her area at the time. She was required to wear a leg brace, about which Wilma would say, “The brace always reminded me something was wrong with me.” Additionally, she received massage treatment four times daily from family members at home. In general, Wilma received much care and attention from her large family, as she spent much of her time at home and, for a couple of years, couldn’t attend school. “With all the love and care my family gave me, I couldn’t help but get better,” Wilma said.

Wilma would get angry and frustrated though throughout these difficult years. Yet she kept from being bitter. “Beat these illnesses no matter what,” was her mindset. At twelve years old, she overcame the debilitating effects of polio, and the brace came off. Wilma, who had begun attending basketball games and wanted to play, joined the team, and she became a star. Her basketball prowess was so remarkable that she scored 803 points in one season, setting a new high school girls’ basketball record. Still, a league referee thought Wilma would make an even better runner. He encouraged her to try the sport. It was advice that she followed, and it would change her life.

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“Track and field star Wilma Rudolph” sources:

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  • Liberti, Rita, and Maureen M. Smith. (Re)Presenting Wilma Rudolph. Syracuse University Press, 2015.

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  • Wolff, Alexander. Fast Train from Clarksville. Sports Illustrated (Vault), November 21, 1994.