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A Little Girl Who Believed: The Wilma Rudolph Story

In honor of Black History Month, this week I would like to recognize Wilma Rudolph, a woman who began her journey as a little girl who believed! What did she believe, you ask? She believed that she would overcome every obstacle life had thrown at her from the time she was born. Because of her undying faith, she made history becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field in a single Olympics.

Wilma Rudolph was born on June 23, 1940, in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, to Ed and Blanche Rudolph. Born prematurely, Wilma had a few serious health problems in her early years, including double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio. The polio virus is “a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often causes developmental problems in children.” As a result of the virus, she suffered paralysis. When she was finally able to walk, she had to wear braces on her legs until she was about nine years old.

After enduring years of hospital visits and treatments, Wilma stunned her doctors when she began walking without the use of leg braces. Not only did Wilma start walking normally, but she began running and playing basketball with her brothers and sisters and other children her age. Considering all that Wilma had gone through as a child, she was living proof that God performs miracles! Wilma said, “My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.” Talk about faith! One of the things I always admired about Wilma Rudolph was her faith that one day she would be able to run, jump and play like any other child.

Matthew 17:20 says:

“…If you had faith even as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible.”

Later in high school, Wilma began proving herself as a star athlete when she set a new state record scoring 803 points in twenty-five games as a sophomore on the girls’ basketball team. During this time, she also began attending summer track camps at Tennessee State University with coach Ed Temple. In 1956, at the tender age of 16, she won a bronze medal at the Summer Olympics in the 400-meter relay event. In fact, she ran on that relay team with my high school freshman track coach Mae Starr.

At the 1960 Olympics, Wilma became the first American woman to win three gold medals in the track and field competition. She won the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash and the 400-meter relay. To add to her accomplishments, she tied the world record in the 100 meter dash and set a new Olympic record in the 200.

A couple of years later, Wilma chose to retire from track and field and focus on her new career as a teacher and raising her family. Although Wilma retired, she continued to be a great influence. She definitely influenced me! Her autobiography Wilma, which was also made into a television movie, was published in 1977. The movie starred Oscar winning actor Denzel Washington in his first movie role. He portrayed Robert Eldridge, the man Wilma later married. I can’t tell you how many times I watched my VHS tape of that movie throughout junior high and high school!

In addition, Wilma contributed to inner-city sports clinics and university track teams. She also founded the Wilma Rudolph Foundation which was dedicated to developing young athletes. Wilma was inducted into the National Black Sports and Entertainment Hall of Fame in 1973, the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974, the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 1983 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1994.

On November 12, 1994, at the age of 54, Wilma Rudolph died of a brain tumor in Brentwood, Tennessee. I remember when I got the news that she had passed away. I was living on campus at Miami University (Oxford, Ohio). It was either a Saturday or Sunday morning when my dad called to tell me the sad news. After we hung up, I just lay on the bed and cried. You would have thought I had known her personally. Next, I looked up at the pictures of her I had on my dorm room wall. I then thanked God for allowing me the opportunity to meet Wilma face to face.

The day I met Wilma Rudolph was a day I will never forget! I was in the 10th grade, and our track team was at the district track meet at Fairfield High School in Fairfield, Ohio. While a few of my teammates and I were standing down by the track to support one of our runners, our former track coach Mrs. Starr surprised us. We were so excited to see her, but we were even more excited when she told us she had THEE WILMA RUDOLPH in the car. I didn’t realize until that moment that she and Wilma had remained friends all those years.

When Wilma walked into the stadium, I couldn’t believe my eyes! She was tall, slender and beautiful just like in all the pictures I had seen of her! Naturally, I asked for her autograph. She agreed to give it to me after the track meet. Well, since I was finished with my events for the day, you know what I did! I sat right next to her until the end of the meet. Then I followed her to the parking lot where she signed an autograph for me (and my brother BJ), which I STILL have in my photo album. It’s too bad we didn’t have camera phones back then because I would have definitely taken a picture of the two of us!

I share the story of Wilma Rudolph because she was my hero. Being a sprinter myself, I connected with her. I also admired her faith and perseverance. It amazed me that a young girl, who always seemed to be sick and could barely walk, later became an Olympic champion. Her story taught me that man doesn’t have the final say. Doctors don’t have the final say. But, GOD has the final say! God chose to heal a little black girl from a poor community in Tennessee simply because she BELIEVED! Young Wilma believed that she would one day walk. Think about that! All it took was her believing! And I believe that not only did she have faith that she would be healed, but she SAW herself healed! I believe she had visions of walking and playing with the other children.

I remember a scene from the movie, in which Wilma was at home with her mother and father while her siblings were off playing somewhere like children typically do. Instead of sitting in the house and feeling sorry for herself, Wilma grabbed the basketball and went outside to the homemade basketball hoop in the front yard. While she was shooting baskets, she removed her shoes and leg braces. When her parents noticed what she had done, they didn’t scold her for taking off her leg braces, but they watched with amazement. James 2:26 says:

“Faith without works is dead.”

Young Wilma understood that she had to put her faith into action!

Another thing I appreciate about Wilma’s story, is the support she received from her parents and siblings. Again, Wilma believed that she would walk because her mother said she would. That says a lot about parental influence. If you are a parent, it’s important that you speak LIFE into your children. You are their biggest influence, especially during their formative years. What you say to them, how you treat them, if you support them, whether or not you love on them, will influence them in a positive OR negative way.

Just like Wilma Rudolph had faith that she would one day live the life of a normal child, I encourage you to have faith that your life is going to turn around for the better! If you need healing, believe God! If you want to go to college, believe God! If you want a better job, believe God! If you want to move into a better neighborhood, believe God! If you want to buy your own home, believe God! Wilma Rudolph was a sickly, physically disabled little black girl from a poor community who grew up to become a world-renowned Olympic champion. If God could do it for her, He can certainly do it for you! You just have to do as she did, remove those hindrances and step out on faith!!!!


(“The Kimberly Joy Show: Honoring Wilma Rudolph for Black History Month”)

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  1. Arnita P. Ealey

    I love this very inspiring….Thank you for sharing

  2. Arnita

    Love it!!….thank you!!

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