Inspirational Stories I : Wilma Rudolph, An Olympic Wonder
When I first read about Wilma Rudolph‘s story, I suddenly remembered a primary school classmate (i.e. grade school) who also suffered from the same dreadful disease (i.e. Polio). I can’t help wondering how he is faring now. During that time, our classroom was located on the 1st level so that he could walk himself up using the railing as a support. All of us really admired his determination and perseverance then. So, no matter where he is or what he’s doing right now, I’m sure with the same tenacity he’ll be able to lead a very fulfilling life and achieve great things like Wilma Rudolph did. The context may be different but the spirit is the same.
This story is dedicated to him. And many others who believe that they can achieve extraordinary things in their lives.
“So I believed in my Mother” ~ Wilma Rudolph
When Wilma Rudolph’s mother was told by the doctors at the hospital that her daughter would never be able to walk again, she didn’t believe it. It was that disbelief that enabled her child to walk years later. It was that same disbelief that allowed America to enthrone the first woman in history to win 3 Olympic Gold medals in a row. One of the greatest inspirational stories of all time!
As a baby, Wilma was born 4.5 pounds and 2 months premature on June 23, 1940 in St Bethlehem, Tennesse. But unlike most premature babies, she recuperated at home since her family could not afford the hospitalization fees. Probably due to her weak constitution and the insufficient medical care, Wilma suffered from a series of childhood diseases such as mumps, chickenpox, scarlet fever and then double pneumonia and remained pretty much bedridden. It was when her left leg started to be deformed that her mother finally took her to the doctors in Nashville.
There and then, Wilma Rudolph was diagnosed to be suffering from Polio. Refusing to believe that her 20th child (out of 22 kids) would never walk again, her mother took her to the hospital for bi-weekly physiotherapy sessions religiously. Every session was a painful experience but Wilma persisted on, believing in her mother when she said she would walk again.
Unveiling the Competitive Streak in Her
By the time she was 6, Wilma Rudolph was given metal braces to aid her in walking. Though the braces were supposed to help her, she hated them. To her, those were chains that imprisoned her at home and away from school. She yearned to break though them, run around the yard and go to school like any of the neighbourhood kids. She wanted to be free.
It was during this time, that she got literally frustrated at life’s adversity and swore to herself that she would fight these diseases no matter what it might take. It was perhaps that same anguish that propelled her to rebel in a different way, revealing her competitive streak that would help her achieve the commendable success in her sport later on.
She started doing home physiotherapy with help from her siblings, and attending school a year later with the braces. A few years later, she awed everyone when she walked totally on her own, without any assistance into the church. She had won her first battle.
The Young Aspiring Sport Star
When she was in junior high, she joined the basketball team. Despite her pleas to play in the games, Wilma remained a reserve for 3 full years where she watched, observed and analyzed the games. Until she was probably as good as her coach! In her 4th year with the team, she finally made an appeal to be in the starting lineup and when her wish was finally granted, she dazzled everyone by leading the team to an undefeated season and the state championships. Though they lost the championship title in the end, Wilma Rudolph earned the attention of the women’s track coach, Ed Template at Tennessee State University and was invited to join the “Tigerbelles”, a premier women’s track & fields team in the region. At that time, she was only a high school student!
Joining the “Tigerbelles” gave her a different perspective. Running was no longer a gift that she took for granted like she used to when she won the tracks in school meets easily, as she lost every race in her first official track meet with the team. Her coach also made sure she worked hard. There was once when she was late for her training by half an hour and she had to run thirty laps as a punishment. One lap for every minute that she was late for. She also realised that she was being surpassed by athletes better trained than her. That kind of stimulated her competitive nature and sprung her into action, working with her coach closely to pick up breathing techniques and racing strategy, pace her starts which was her weakest area, and build up stamina and physical strength. At the same time, her mindset had also changed. No longer viewing her track seniors as heros, she allowed herself to beat their timings.
Her efforts paid off as she turned out to be so good that the Tigerbelles invited her to join them in the 1956 heats for the national Olympics team. Not only did she make it into the team, she did well enough in the Melbourne Olympics to win a bronze in the 100-metres relay. At that time, she was only 16! When most of the girls her age were in high school mugging books and attending proms, she was already running for the Olympics! Although she did not win any of her own personal races, she vowed to be back in 1960, but not before being rewarded with a full scholarship by the Tennessee State to officially join the Tigerbelles as a result of her next 4 years’ training efforts.
Shining Through Rome 1960
She made it to the Rome Olympics to compete in 3 separate events. Although she suffered from a sprained ankle then, she did not let it affect her performance and shocked the world by winning in an amazing fashion, breaking the World record (even though it was disputed later due to a claim of the strong tailwind) and the Olympic record in both the 100-metre & 200-metre races respectively. Even during their first heats of their 400-metres relay, Wilma Rudolph and her teammates had already broken the World record. A win was imminent for them in the finals, if not for a bad baton pass resulting in Germany and Russia taking the lead. However, her strong will to win propelled her to catch up and still win the race at only 0.3 seconds ahead of the second placed runner.
Wilma Rudolph’s extraordinary achievements in Rome 1960 made her a darling of the European press who gave her the nickname “The Black Gazelle” and “The Black Pearl”. Undisputedly, she also became the first woman in American history to win 3 gold medals in the Olympics and was crowned “the Fastest Woman in the World”. Despite those, Wilma regarded her greatest tribute to be her homecoming parade in Tennesse. At that time, she proposed for the segregation laws for her homecoming events to be abolished and those were some of the first integrated events that the town has ever seen.
After that, Wilma Rudolph continued to be active in her sport mainly as a coach in high school track, sports commentator and mentor to famous African-American female athletes such as Jackie Joyner Kersee and Florence Griffith Joyner who became the next woman to win 3 gold medals. Both of them were remarkable women who were pretty much engaged in Wilma’s spirit, even when she died of brain cancer at 54 on Nov 12, 1994.
What Did I Learn From Wilma Rudolph?
Wilma Rudolph is a great reminder to us that we can overcome life’s adversity with determination and sheer will power. Some personal reflections :
(1) Your Reality is Formed By What You Think Not What Others Think
Now, if Wilma’s mother had believed in the doctors’ advice, what would have happened? Pardon me, I’m not trying to say doctors’ advice is not necessary or important. It is. But what I’m convey is this : restrictions set upon by others is merely a perception of what they think is right for you at that moment of time. It’s still your perception of your reality that determines the result. If you choose to assume theirs as yours, most likely you’ll find yourself living in someone’s expectations of you, both good or bad.
(2) Humility to Learn from Your Failures
Well, I shouldn’t even call them failures. They’re outcomes. Wilma easily picked herself up to learn from her competitors even after losing every race of her first official meet. While most people would shut themselves in their rooms, crying over their defeat, Wilma Rudolph spent her time analyzing areas that she was weak at (i.e. starts) and keep practising until she got it right or even much better than her competitors. Frankly speaking, this is a true display of a strong psychological buildup. No, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s wrong to cry. When I got my posting results for my Preuniversity allocation, I cried a lot too. What I’m trying to say is, you can cry or do whatever it takes to get that frustration and sadness out of your system, but once you’re done, please remember there’s so much you can still learn from what you’ve just been through. Learning from your outcomes takes a lot of courage, I know. But the pain of not learning from them takes even more.
(3) Action & Persistence Are the Keys
Wilma had dreams, goals but it was not having dreams or goals that allowed her to have such achievements, it was action. She wanted to be able to walk like every kid on the block, so she worked on her therapy exercises and practiced walking without the braces. She wanted to be in the starting lineup for the basketball team so, she honed her techniques and acquired her coach’s analytical skills and fought for an opportunity to perform. She wanted to be win a gold medal for her races in the 1960 Olympics and hence, she kept a 4 year intensive training schedule! 4 years! How many of us have given up after just 6 months or even a month’s work on something we wanted to achieve? While watching the Chris Widener’s show on TSTN the other day, I also found out that Chris took 18 years get to where he is today, an author, show host, motivational speaker etc.
If you wonder why these people such as Chris or Wilma Rudolph have the patience to stick it thorough, it boils down to 1 thing: Burning desire. Ask yourself today, what is your burning reason? Or do you have one in the first place?