Wilma Glodean Rudolph: A Spirit Forged in Steel

On June 23, 1940 Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born premature and weighed only 4.5 pounds. Her early arrival required additional medical care that her parents, Blanch and Ed, could neither find nor afford. You see, as African Americans living in a time of segregation, the Rudolph’s struggled with the inequities of the time including the fact that only whites were permitted to use the local hospital. 


Wilma’s Mother Finds Treatment

With no medical care readily available, and with very little money, Mrs. Rudolph had no other choice but to care for Wilma at home. And much care was required. In her earliest years, Wilma had to endure one illness after another- measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox, and double pneumonia. But perhaps the greatest challenge came when she was diagnosed with polio at the young age of five.

The doctors told Blanche that Wilma would never be able to walk without the support of steel braces on her legs. But Blanche Rudolph had a quite different vision for her daughter. She refused to accept this diagnosis and she set out on a mission to find a cure. Through persistence and determination, she discovered that Wilma could receive treatment at Meharry Hospital in Nashville – a 50-mile drive from their home.


Encouragement, Love and Hard Work Bring Results

So for the next two years, Mrs. Rudolph drove 50 miles each way to get Wilma the physical therapy she required. Through the process, the hospital staff taught Mrs. Rudolph how to do physical therapy at home. Blanche and the entire Rudolph family worked with Wilma every day. With love, encouragement, discipline, and very hard work, Wilma was able to walk without crutches, leg braces or corrective shoes by her 12th birthday.

She had spent the larger part of her life limited by the illnesses and once free of her steel braces, running began to give Wilma a sense of freedom like she had never felt before.


Wilma Pursues Sports

Wilma’s first athletic pursuit was basketball; following in the steps of her big sister. But, for her first three years, here talent was silent as she sat on the bench – not playing a single game. It seemed that life would continue to put obstacles in front of her. However, Wilma’s spirit was forged from steel and she continued to practice hard, refusing to give up. In her sophomore year, she became the starting guard for the team and subsequently led the team to a State Championship.

But Wilma’s first love was to run and at the age of sixteen (barely four years free from braces), Wilma qualified for and ran track in the 1956 Olympics – winning a bronze medal in the 4x100m relay. Later that year, during the state basketball tournament, she was spotted by Ed Temple, the coach for the women’s track team at Tennessee State University. Ed shared her passion for running, saw greatness within her and offered her a track scholarship.


Victory Through Adversity

Four years later, Wilma ran in the 1960 Rome Olympics. The little girl that could hardly walk without the assistance of crutches or braces had overcome her challenges and became the first women in history to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. A feat that would not be accomplished again for 40 years when the American Jenny Thompson would swim her way to three gold medals.  

Wilma’s story is one of how others leading with love and kindness can make a positive difference. With the support of her friends and family, she would find something special within herself – a passion – that would inspire women to reach for new heights regardless of the obstacles.

An excerpt from the book, Finish Strong, by Dan Green

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