She had more reason than most to do nothing and amount to nothing.
For a start, she was born prematurely in 1940 in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, the 20th of 22 children. Not a great entrée into the world.
She was stricken with double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio as a child. Her left leg was much weakened as a result and she had to wear a metal brace.
The bulk of her childhood was spent in bed. She later said, “My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.” Was she right to believe her mama!
Then she contracted whooping cough, measles and chicken pox. But somehow, Wilma Rudolph was out of her leg braces at age 9 and soon became a budding basketball star.
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And a naturally gifted runner.
She became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympic Games (Rome, 1960).
She did more than promote her country. In her soft-spoken, gracious manner, she paved the way for African-American athletes, both men and women, who came later.
“Sell them their dreams. People don’t buy things to have things. They buy things to work for them. They buy hope — hope of what your merchandise will do for them.”
When she returned from Rome, Tennessee Gov. Buford Ellington, who was elected as “an old-fashioned segregationist,” planned to head her welcome home celebration. Rudolph said she would not attend a segregated event.
Wilma Rudolph’s parade (attended by 40,000 people) and banquet were the first integrated events in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee.
In the 1980s, she was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame and established the Wilma Rudolph Foundation to promote amateur athletics.
She once stated, “Winning is great, sure, but if you are really going to do something in life, the secret is learning how to lose. Nobody goes undefeated all the time. If you can pick up after a crushing defeat, and go on to win again, you are going to be a champion someday.”
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