How Polio Helped Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph is one of the greatest female athletes in the history of sports.  She won four gold medals at two Olympic Games (one bronze in 1956, and three gold in 1960), setting two world records and becoming the female athlete of the year in 1960.

A young Wilma Rudolph in 1960. Courtesy of Henk Lindeboom / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Wilma’s story is not about accomplishment, nor talent.  Her story is about something else entirely.

Imagine yourself with polio.  Tough to imagine, isn’t it?  What about being the twentieth child of twenty two children, and an African American girl from Clarksville, Tennessee in during segregation?  This is where the story of Wilma Rudolph begins.


Early Struggle

Struggle was the norm for young Wilma.  By the age of four, she had battled scarlet fever, pneumonia, and infantile paralysis…the latter of which is caused by the polio virus.  She lost the use of her left leg.  Polio caused her leg and foot to become twisted, forcing her to wear a brace on that leg until she was nine.

On top of the physical toll she endured, one could only imagine the mental challenges.  Little money for food and medical bills.  School children made fun of her.  People saw a frail, little girl with little promise of a positive future.

They were wrong.  What they didn’t see was how this series of struggle developed her mindset.  She began to develop an empathy and understanding for what was truly important.  This would serve as the foundation for her success in the coming years.


Growth from Adversity

At nine years old, she shocked her doctors by removing her braces.  She walked.  By twelve, she was functioning like the other children in school.  Mentally, she was prepared beyond anyone her age.  By twelve years old, she had already beaten polio, pneumonia, and scarlet fever…she had developed a mental advantage over her peers because of the obstacles she faced.

There is no question, Wilma possessed physical gifts that many athlete’s would dream of.  She would soon grow to a height of 5’ 11’’, and quickly became an accomplished high school basketball player.  But what made her a high performer was her mind:  persistence, character, and mindset.  She understood what she should be grateful for.

She became so mentally strong that the natural failures and risks of sports could not affect her progress.  Those downsides were nothing compared to not being able to walk, not having food on the table, or death.


Life as a High Performer

Track and field became her passion.  By 1956, she made the U.S. Olympic team, winning a bronze medal in the 4 x 100 meter relay.  In 1960, she won three gold medals in the 100 meter, 200 meter, and 4 x 100 meter relay.  She set world

Wilma Rudolph at the finish line during 50 yard dash at track meet in Madison Square Garden. Courtesy of New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. (NYPL Digital) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

records in the 200 and the 4 x 100 meter relay.  She even ran the individual 100 meter in 11 seconds, a new world record for the time, but it was decided that the time was “wind aided”.  She was the story of the Olympic Games, only 11 years after doctors believed she may never walk again.

She was named Female Athlete of the year in 1960 and 1961.

In the years that followed, she became a symbol of what human beings can accomplish given hardship and adversity.

To me, her success did not come in spite of the adversity she faced.  It is because of it that Wilma Rudolph became the person and athlete she became.


Retirement and Legacy

This is illustrated well in how she retired from track and field.  During a 4 x 100 relay race on November 27th, 1962, with Team USA facing Russia, the team was losing as the baton was about to be passed to Wilma.  As usual, she was the “anchor”, which meant she had the fourth and final leg of the race.  In interviews, she tells of this story.  She states that she gave herself an ultimatum.  If she came back and won the race, she would retire.  If she didn’t, she would keep racing to compete in the Olympics.

She won.  Then, as she promised, she retired.

Wilma Rudolph had nothing to prove to anyone but herself.  She accomplished so much, not just in the sport of track and field, but in demonstrating how struggle does not need to handicap you and your future.  With immense gratitude, character, and persistence, Rudolph continues to serve as a strong reminder of how adversity can serve as an opportunity.

Takeaway:  What is holding you back?  Write it down.  Be honest with yourself.  Use Wilma’s story as fuel for taking on those items.  What is one step you can take to move forward?

No excuses.  Go get ‘em.

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