The Miracle of Wilma Rudolph

When I think of commitment, I think of a story about a young handicapped black child by the name of Wilma Rudolph. She was born premature, weighing four and one-half pounds, on a farm in the backwoods of Tennessee. At the age of four, she was stricken with double pneumonia and scarlet fever. The deadly combination left her with a paralyzed and useless left leg. Doctors told her mother that Wilma would never walk, at least not like a normal child. Her mother’s only response was a line from a favorite hymn. Wilma could “climb her highest mountain if she only did it one step at a time.”

The first step was very painful. Wilma’s doctors had to teach her to walk with a burdensome steel brace. That took five torturous years. At first, walking was impossible, but Wilma’s mother continued to massage the impaired leg until one day she achieved a slight step. The difficult and painful process continued, sustained by the patient dedication of Wilma’s mother, who ingrained in her daughter’s mind the words, “Never give up!”

On her ninth birthday, Wilma amazed her doctors by taking a step without the steel brace. She had spent the past five years developing her broken, limping step into a smooth, rhythmic stride. Doctors hoped that she would eventually walk without a limp. But what happened in Wilma Rudolph’s life amazed the medical world but not her mom.

When she was 13 years old, three things happened to Wilma. First, she entered a Tennessee high school. Second, she joined the track team. And third, she assumed the nickname “limpy Rudolph” because she limped into last place in every event in which she competed.

At first, her friends encouraged her, but when it became apparent to them that she would never compete effectively and that she was suffering abuse from teammates and opponents alike, they urged her even begged her to quit.

Wilma continued to enter every race and continued to limp into last place each time, but she always finished. She never quit. One day, a miracle happened. She surprised her teammates by coming in next to last in a race. Another day she finished third from last. One day she finished second from first, and one day she won a race!

Now, with a feeling of victory in her blood, she began to run with a reckless abandon until one day she won every race she entered. That day, she won herself a new nickname, “lightning Rudolph!”

This unknown athlete came to the attention of Coach Ed Temple at Tennessee State University, and he was impressed. Coach Temple asked Wilma to come to his school and run for him. Wilma said, “If running will get me an education, Coach, I will come to your school, and I will run harder and faster than I have ever run in my entire life. I promise you . . . I’ll never give up!”

While away at school, things were about to change again for Wilma. No longer could she depend on the motivation of her mother. Motivation had to come from within. Wilma was brilliant in her college career. In 1960, both she and her coach received the honor of being picked for the Olympic track team that was to compete in Rome.

Wilma had never traveled outside Tennessee, except to compete with the track team. A dramatic stage had been set for this poor black child who had fought her way out of the shackles of a leg brace to compete in the Olympics. Those in the stadium that year in Rome thought that Wilma Rudolph looked a bit lonely. She was an unknown black athlete. Something was seriously wrong with her left leg because she hobbled with a limp. Some observers were asking aloud, “What’s she doing here? What is the United States trying to prove?”

It took exactly 11 seconds for the world to find out what Wilma Rudolph was doing in Rome that year. When the starting pistol cracked in the 100-meter dash, Wilma tore up the cinder path in world-record time to capture her first gold medal.

Her second race was the 200-meter dash. No one could figure out why Wilma would even enter this race. Germany’s Yetta Hynie was heavily favored to win it. She held the world’s record in the event. No one expected to beat Yetta, no one but Wilma Rudolph.

Again, the starting pistol cracked. Wilma and Yetta jumped to a commanding lead, leaving the remainder of the field behind to quarrel among themselves for third place. As the pair made the turn, the crowd was on its feet screaming wildly. The two raced neck and neck, stride for stride, to the finish line. With a burst of speed on the backstretch, Wilma pushed out to the lead, snapped the victory tape, and captured her second gold medal with a stunning upset of the world champion.

Several days later, Wilma would be competing again against a revenge-seeking Yetta Hynie. But this time the race was the 400-meter relay, and the German foursome, featuring Yetta as the anchor runner, was the heavy favorite. They held the world’s record. No one dared to challenge the Germans, no one but Wilma and the Americans.

The starter’s pistol cracked, and the first leg of the race began with a burst. Apparently this would be a duel between the Germans and the Americans. The first runners handed the batons cleanly to the second. The second runners made a clean exchange with the third.

Wilma and Yetta were on the anchor leg. When the third runners made the exchange of batons to Wilma and Yetta, Wilma dropped hers, allowing Yetta to coast all alone toward the victory line for what seemed a sure-fire gold medal for the German foursome.

No one knows what happened in that next instant. Perhaps, for a moment, Wilma looked beyond that Roman cinder path; beyond the walls of that stadium, and sent out a cry to her mother back home in Tennessee. And a still, small voice came back . . . “Never give up! Never, never, never give up!”

We do not know if that actually happened, but we do know what Olympic records tell us did happen. Wilma was hopelessly behind. With less than ten seconds to go and less than 100 yards from the finish line, Wilma reached down, picked up the baton in one fist and began her comeback.

She raced neck and neck, stride for stride, to the finish line, 75 yards to go . . . 60 yards to go . . . 25 yards to go. With a burst of speed at the finish, she pushed out to the lead, snapped the tape, and captured her third gold medal. She was the first American woman in the history of the Olympics ever to win three gold medals.

One hundred thousand screaming fans were on their feet yelling wildly because they knew they were not just watching another race; they were witnessing a miracle, the miracle of Wilma Rudolph.

(Taken from a book “The Toastmasters International Guide to Successful Speaking” by Jeff Slutsky and Michael Aun)

Hope this story inspires you.

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