Saturday, February 18, 2012

Child Walks Through Polio Then Runs Into Olympic History: Wilma's Journey

Many years ago, during the time of segregation a fragile premature infant was born. It was June 23rd 1940 when the four and a half-pound baby made her early entrance into the world. From the moment of birth her life was an uphill climb. Within her first few years she was stricken with several illnesses. Some of which were life threatening, including an incurable crippling disease. As an infant she was not expected to live very long and after becoming paralyzed as a young child it was said that she would never walk again, but somehow she would emerge, transcend the bleak reality that confronted her and excel far beyond all expectation!

She was the 20th of 22 children born into the despair of poverty and poor health and there was little hope that either condition would change. Her parents worked low paying jobs and with plenty of mouths to feed there was barely enough to make ends meet. Also, the local hospital under the laws of segregation, would not care for the sick child because she was Black. At the time there were only a small number of black physicians to treat Black people. In her hometown of Clarksville,Tennessee, it equaled one black doctor to treat the entire black community. As a result, the heavy burden to provide medical care for the sickly child fell primarily on the back of the mother. She would carry the weight of that responsibility through every illness, the measles, the mumps, the chicken pox, the whooping cough, scarlet fever and double pneumonia.
 As the mother and her child weathered the severe storm of sickness, another illness was developing on the horizon. It would cast more gloom into the child's life. The child was less than 5 years old when her left leg and foot became weakened and deformed. A diagnosis of polio was made and with it a prognosis that the child would never walk again. The paralyzing disease would require that the child have regular professional treatment. Unavailable in their hometown, the mother had to find somewhere else for her child to receive treatment.

It was then that the mother discovered that her daughter could be treated, at a black medical college located 50 miles away in Nashville. Over the next 2 years, the mother faithfully took her child there twice a week until she learned how to walk with the help of a metal brace. With instruction on how to proceed with therapy the mother continued to care for the child at home. It gave the rest of the family a chance to help. For the following 7 years the mother and her children worked diligently to help rehabilitate the child's leg and foot.

Finally, after years of perseverance, at the age of 12 there was a remarkable breakthrough. Led by her unconquerable spirit, the child miraculously walked out of the confining world of polio and into the defining moment of her life. Using just her natural ability, she had out walked the lame expectation of her by a mile, with one step. If the child had never overcome another obstacle, or taken on another challenge after that, her life was already a complete story of inspiring determination, but she did.

This time, it was under much different circumstances. After relearning to walk at such a late age, there was no time for her to allow grass to grow under her feet. She quickly followed the footsteps of her older sister onto the playground of scholastic sports. In junior high school, she joined the basketball team and earned All-State recognition. In high school, she stepped up and led her basketball team to the state championship game. She continued to race forward, and in the process another athletic gift was discovered. Then it was presented to the world. At the tender age of 16, in the 1956 Olympic Games her amazing ability to run helped the United States track team capture the bronze medal in the 4x100 meter relay.

From how she started to where she finished, what she had accomplished was no ordinary feat. Winning an Olympic medal in her shoes was an extraordinary feat. Not only had the child's experience in track been greatly limited by her youth, but just 4 years prior to the competition, she couldn't walk without the help of a brace. Her ability to compete on the Olympic level wasn't even considered to be within the realm of possibility, and yet the crowning moment of her athletic career was still to come.

It happened at the 1960 Rome Olympics. In an unprecedented performance she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics' competition. Her quest for gold in the 100 and 200 meter races were both highlighted in record-breaking time. In team competition, despite running with a sprained ankle she help the United States claim the gold in the 4x100 meter relay also in record- breaking time.
As a result of her accomplishments in the world of track and field at the time, she was awarded the title of Fastest Woman in History. She was also named athlete of the year by the United Press. Her name, Wilma Rudolph, and in the process of winning three Olympic gold medals, her endearing performance won the hearts of many spectators from around the world. To the French she was known as the Black Pearl and the Italians affectionately referred to her as the Black Gazelle.

After returning home from the Olympics she was welcomed by a large crowd of people, Black and White. It was the first integrated event in the town's history, a significant step beyond segregation. It was a historic parade for a heroic athlete to celebrate an improbable journey to a mountainous peak, started by a girl who couldn't walk and finished by a woman's triumphant run to greatness!


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