Mama, Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Sprinters
It’s June 23, 1940. In steamy St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, a mother holds her newborn, a mere four and a half pounds. She knows a typical preemie faces overwhelming odds. What she doesn’t know is that her child will overcome double pneumonia and defeat scarlet fever. What she cannot imagine is that her little girl will contract polio, lose the use of her left leg and be in a brace by the age of six. Nor can she foresee the battles with whooping cough, measles and chicken pox. What she does not expect is that she will watch her daughter become the “fastest woman in the world” at the 1960 Olympics, half a world away from St. Bethlehem.
There, on the Olympic platform in Rome, is the woman I choose to meet: Wilma Rudolph, an incredible athlete whose determination and spirit led to legendary accomplishments. She had the moxie to persist and was able to turn frustration into opportunity. She made a courageous return from debilitating illness and made the most of the rare benefits of what she had to endure.
I would like to chat with Wilma and tell her how much I admire and respect the child she was and the woman she became. I wonder if she would say that growing up in a large family was a blessing or a curse. She was one of twenty-two children from her father’s two marriages and there wasn’t a lot of money to go around. Siblings massaged her weakened legs and her mother drove her long distances to therapy. When Wilma, age nine, was finally free of leg braces, her brothers set up a hoop in the yard. and a basketball star was born. The power of family, Wilma could teach us.
Maybe C. C. Gray might drop by, Wilma’s coach in high school, who nicknamed her “Skeeter.” I’d like to know the story behind that! It was no secret that Wilma loved to run. “I don’t know why I run so fast, I just run,” she said. Her natural ability took her to Tennessee State; her team work and dedication took her to the Olympics. What might she say to young girls today about hard work and commitment? The power of perseverance, Wilma could teach us.
If Wilma were alive today, I imagine she would be a force in this country for civil rights. She knew the lure of equality and freedom and tolerance. I’d like to ask her about the parade and banquet for her back home. A quiet but important civil rights episode took place there. Wilma demonstrated courage and the power of one. Because of her, the first integrated events happened in Clarksville. How did she handle the segregationist governor? What valor she must have possessed. She paved the way for African-American athletes and inspired young ones. With four children of her own, Wilma could help us understand the lessons of those post-Olympic years raising her own family, coaching and being a goodwill ambassador to French West Africa. A family and a career, a tall order for a woman of any generation. But her lessons of where we came from are essential. The power of community, Wilma could teach us.
I’d ask Wilma what she thought of the movie made about her life, the celebrity status, the gold medals and the honor of being inducted into the Black Athlete Hall of Fame and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if she said these accomplishments were secondary to the love of her family and the resolve to rise above adversity. I think Wilma would point with pride to The Wilma Rudolph Foundation, her non-profit community-based amateur sports program.
“I tell them that the most important aspect is to be yourself and have confidence in yourself. I remind them that the triumph can’t be had without the struggle.” The power of experience, Wilma could teach us.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.