The 1960 Summer Olympic Games were historic for the United States. Wilma Rudolph would become the first US woman to win 3 gold medals in the same Olympics in the track and field competition. It would be a moment of glory for a woman who had the deck stacked against her at every turn. These interesting facts about her can be an inspiration to us all.
1. A Family of 19
That’s not a typo. Rudolph’s father had 11 children from a first marriage and 8 children from a second marriage. That’s 19 children in total and Wilma was child #16 in that family. She was only 4.5 pounds at birth and her family didn’t believe that she was even going to survive. That fear was only heightened when she contracted polio at the age of 4.
2. Supporting a Large Family
Both of Rudolph’s parents were working more than full-time hours to support their large family. Her father was a porter for the railroad, so he was often away from home. Her mother clean houses 6 days a week to help fill-in the financial gaps. This left Wilma and her three other younger siblings that would come along under the charge of the older siblings.
3. A Determined Outcome
Wilma Rudolph completely lost the use of her left leg because of the affects of polio. Massage specialists in Nashville recommended routine massage therapy to help her regain use of her leg, but the family couldn’t afford the treatments. Her mother wasn’t about to let her daughter have a paralyzed leg for life. She took the time to learn the massage therapy techniques that were needed and then taught her older children. This allowed Wilma to receive several massages per day and this helped her to recover from what could have been a lifelong disability.
4. A State Record
It took 5 years of treatment for Wilma Rudolph to cast aside the leg braces. When she did, there was no turning back. She loved playing basketball, but couldn’t get on the high school team. Eventually she received a position because the coach wanted her older sister to play. That would be a life-changing decision because in her high school career, she would set a state record at the time with 803 points scored.
5. Training To Be An Olympian
The greatest attribute of Wilma Rudolph was always her speed. Her talent was spotted at the age of 14 by collegiate coaches at Tennessee State. When Rudolph had summer breaks from high school, she would train with the track team at the university. She also raced in high school and never lost a race. By the age of 16, she would qualify for the 1956 Summer Olympics and bring home a bronze medal.
6. Becoming “La Gazelle”
The four years between the two Olympics were a struggle for Rudolph. She was studying elementary education, but her passion and focus was on running. She spent every free moment training and eventually her body just wore out. She would lose two years because of illness and injury, but with the help of her college coach would be ready to go for the Olympic meets in 1960 that she would dominate. In her individual events, she finished more than 9 feet in front of her other competitors, setting a world record for the 200 meters.
7. A Fear of Duplication
After her successes at the 1960 Olympics, Rudolph decided to retire from amateur competition. She was afraid she wouldn’t be able to duplicate the success she had experienced. That didn’t mean she went away from amateur sports completely. She would become a coach and a teacher, encouraging other athletes to pursue their dreams. She also cited her work as a single mother after two divorces left her with 4 children that she raised by herself.
8. A Motivational Speaker
Until her death in 1994, she continued to travel frequently as a motivational speaker. She served as an ambassador to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. She started inner city sports clinics. Her work and accomplishments have been recognized by more than one hall of fame.
The legacy that Wilma Rudolph has left behind is one that can still inspire anyone today. Instead of being defined by the adversity that she faced, Rudolph and her family decided that they would overcome those issues and find a way to be successful. She did more than beat the effects of polio. Wilma Rudolph became an important part of US Olympic history as well.