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Wilma Rudolph
Stories of inspiration from Smart Girl Stories across the globe. Wilma Rudolph – International Symbol Of Strength And Determination

Wilma Rudolph – International Symbol Of Strength And Determination

As far as Olympians go, it is not hard to see why we have chosen Wilma Rudolph as one of our top SmartGirls. Best known as an American runner, and a world-record-holding Olympic gold medalist, Wilma won against all odds for her outstanding career. From a young age,

Wilma showed unbeatable strength and determination, overcoming serious disabilities to become a top American athlete. Let’s take a closer look at her life and why she is a true inspiration to girls everywhere!

Early Life

Wilma was born prematurely,, weighing only 4.5 pounds (2.0 kg) 4.5 pounds (2.0 kg) in Saint Bethlehem, Tennessee, in 1940. She was one of 22 children, as her father had 11 children in his first marriage and 8 children in his second. She came from a simple home, her mother a housemaid and her father a railway porter. With such a large family, she often went without the luxuries in life, and as a premature baby, her older siblings often aided her during her years as a baby.

As a child, Wilma survived bouts of pneumonia and scarlet fever, contracting infantile paralysis (caused by polio) at the age of five. She eventually recovered from polio but lost strength in her left leg and foot, causing her to wear a leg brace until she was twelve. Doctors told Wilma that she would never walk again, but her mother insisted that she would.

By the time Wilma turned 6 years old, she had begun to hop on one leg. When she was 8 years old, she could function with the leg brace on. At age 11, her mother saw her outside playing basketball. Her mother was right; Wilma would beat all odds and not only walk but go on to compete professionally as an American athlete!

An Escape From Reality

As Wilma grew up and became increasingly mobile, she turned to sports as an escape from reality. This was when people started taking notice that she was a natural athlete.

By the time Wilma was in high school, she was an All-American basketball player. But after a chance encounter with a college coach, she turned to running track and field.

She began running at a collegiate level while still in high school. In 1956, at 16 years old, she competed in the Olympic games, winning a bronze medal in the 4×100 relay. She returned to the Olympic games again in 1960, determined to win a gold medal. Her performance in Rome secured her as one of the greatest athletes during the 1900s, breaking 3 world records and winning 3 gold medals. She was titled “the fastest woman in the world”.

Facing Racism

Wilma used her status as an Olympic athlete to go against racism. After returning from Rome as a world champion, she refused to attend her homecoming parade unless it was integrated. Her gold-medal victories in Rome helped propel Wilma to become of the most highly visible black women, not only across the United States but worldwide. She was later inducted into the Black Sports Hall of Fame in 1973.

A Career In Education

After retiring from track and field, she continued her education at Tennessee State University and continued on with sports in her spare time. However, Wilma didn’t earn significant money as an amateur athlete, so she shifted her career to teaching. She worked at multiple community centers throughout the U.S. and was inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983.

Later in life, Wilma dedicated her life to helping aspiring track and field stars reach their full potential by starting an organization, the Wilma Rudolph Foundation.

She became the first woman to win the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Silver Anniversary Award in 1990, and at Tennessee State University, the indoor track and dormitory are named after her.

In 1977, her life story became a prime-time movie, inspiring young women everywhere that they can also overcome disabilities and become whomever they wish to be.

In July 1994, Wilma was diagnosed with brain cancer and throat cancer. Her condition rapidly deteriorated and she passed away on November 12, 1994 at age fifty-four.

Although Wilma passed away at a relatively young age, she lived her life to the fullest. She is an inspiration for overcoming her disabilities and standing up to racism. At Smart Girl Search, we are truly inspired by women like Wilma and can learn from her enormous achievements.

Learn about more inspiring girls on our Smart Girls page, or follow our Instagram page for more stories like this!

This blog post was co-written by Hannah and Sarah, a contributing writer to SGS.



Founder, Smart Girl, Survivor, Champion of womens rights and kids rights


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