The Fastest Woman on Earth
In all of American Sport History, few figures are more compelling than Wilma Rudolph. If a barrier stood in her way, Wilma broke it down, whether physical or societal. She overcame a host of maladies, from a scarlet fever to polio. She defied both gender and racial norms, and went to become an indisputable champion. Most impressively, she became a source of inspiration for generations to come, and her story is worth more than a fleeting mention in the text.
Even from birth, Wilma Rudolph had the odds stacked against her. On June 23, 1940 she was born in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee. She was born two months premature, a condition brought on by her mother falling. (Smith, 2006) At four and half pounds, the odds of survival were not in her favor, and if she did make it, her life would be an uphill battle. But Wilma proved to be a fighter, even as an infant, and she endured. Wilma’s birth made her the twentieth of her father’s twenty two children. Neither parent had completed elementary school, and the family struggled with poverty, with an income of about $2500 annually. Despite their money troubles, the family remained strong and close, a Wilma said they “had everything else, especially love”. (Anderson, 2011)
Financial issues were only the tip of the iceberg for Wilma. Her physical problems began with her premature birth and only grew from there. Before she turned seven, she suffered through double pneumonia, measles, mumps, whooping cough, chicken pox, and scarlet fever. Perhaps most damaging was her battle with polio, which left her stricken with infant paralysis at age four. As a result, she wore a steel brace on her left leg, which helped heal her body, but did considerable psychological damage, according to Wilma herself. The brace was a constant reminder that something made her different from other children, that “something was wrong with her.” (Smith, 2006)
Wilma endured both physical and emotional pain due to her handicap. In addition to the pain from the condition itself, Wilma underwent painful therapies to aid her condition. These therapies included stretches, exercises, and a hot whirlpool bath. Wilma hated these therapies, but her mother was determined to help her daughter in any way possible. So, twice a week, Wilma and her mother would travel to the segregated hospital at Meharry Medical College in Nashville. (Anderson, 2011). Perhaps worse than the physical pain was the emotional torment. Other children would call her a cripple and exclude her from their activities. Wilma said that “being sick left a lot of scars on [her] mentally”. (Smith, 2006) Despite these scars, Wilma did not give up, and a competitive spirit was born in her; she was determined to beat her handicap and prove she belonged.
When Wilma was nine, her determination came to fruition, when she walked in public without her brace for the first time. This walk down the aisle of her church, was “one of the most important moments of [her]...