Wilma Rudolph (1940 -1994) – Determination

(USA, Sprinter, triple gold medallist, Rome, 1960: 100m, 200m, 4x100m; world record holder)

(illustration by Simon Smith, © Simon Smith 2011, used with permission)

Wilma was born into a very large African American family, Clarksville, Tennessee, in 1940, while segregation was the norm in many states of the USA, Tennessee included. She was her parents’ 20th child of the 22 they had!  Her family was large and poor, her father was a railway worker, while her mum was doing cleaning for others. Wilma was born prematurely and in her early childhood she was always getting sick. While they nursed her as they could, the family noticed that her left leg and foot were becoming weak and deformed. Wilma contracted polio. The doctors had no hope for her that she would ever walk. They were right up to a point, she didn’t walk, she ran.

Her devoted mother took her twice a week for years for treatment to a university hospital some 50 miles away. They faithfully did the recommended exercises at home too. When Wilma was 12 she was able to walk without her metal leg braces. In secondary school she began to excel in basketball but her passion was athletics.  Amazingly at the age of sixteen (!) she was selected as part of the national athletic team to compete at the Olympics in Melbourne 1956. She won a bronze medal with the 4x100m relay team.

Four years later in 1960 in Rome, she won the 100m equalling the world record, and later won the 200m and was part of the USA team that won the 4x100m relay. After the Olympics she continued to set new records and win competitions.

One day, her home town invited her back for a special civic reception to celebrate her achievements. There would be music, speeches, festivities, and thousands of people, but the event was to be segregated! Segregation meant that she could travel only at the allocated seats of a bus, being seen by only an African American doctor and go only to a school for African American children. Wilma thought hard and made a brave decision, she said No to the invitation. She would not come to a segregated reception. The city council had to think hard too, finally they gave in, and it was a reception where people could mix freely. Some 40,000 people turned up of all races and backgrounds.  Wilma always viewed it as one of the best things she ever did or achieved.

Wilma Rudolph was light in a dark world. Starting out from a multiple disadvantaged background with fierce commitment, love and support of her family, and her Christian faith she achieved great things, and not just on the athletic field, but contributed to justice as well. Wilma said: ‘When I was going through my transition of being famous, I tried to ask God why I was here? What was my purpose? Surely, it wasn’t just to win three gold medals. There has to be more to this life than that.’ Jesus said that we are the light of the world let our light shine in such a way that with our talents, and skills we make a difference in this world that will be noticed by people who in turn will give the praise to God, our heavenly Father.

[from GV; based on ‘Who Comes First?’ by Chris Hudson]

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