From Chapter 3, “Persistence, Press on!” in Ingredients of Outliers
From Braces to Races
The woman whose story follows had no aspirations to be a role model. “I don’t consciously try to be a role model,” she said, “so I don’t know if I am or not. That’s for others to decide.” After reading her story, I’m sure you’ll agree that she proved to be an outstanding one, inspiring others to press on, no matter what obstacles they faced.
Born prematurely in 1940 in the segregated South, the twentieth of 22 children in a desperately poor family, there was nothing about this tiny four-and-a-half-pound baby girl to suggest future greatness. She was a sickly child, stricken with a variety of illnesses, including scarlet fever, pneumonia, and then polio, which required her to wear leg braces. The doctors told her she would never be able to walk without them and her future seemed bleak.
But inside that frail young body was a persevering spirit; she was determined to prove the doctors wrong. Later in her life, she made this comment: “My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.” At age nine she shed those braces and began—hesitantly at first—to walk, and then to run. She went on to become a basketball star in high school and then a world-class runner, first as a star sprinter on the Tennessee State University track team and then as an Olympic gold medalist.
Her name was Wilma Rudolph. In 1956, at the age of 16 and still in high school, she was selected as a member of the United States Olympic Team and helped her relay team win a bronze medal in Melbourne, Australia.
But her greatest Olympic triumphs came four years later, during the 1960 Games in Rome. She began by winning the gold medal in the 100-meter dash and followed it by winning the 200-meter dash, setting a new Olympic record in the process. Finally, she earned a third gold medal as a member of the world-record-setting relay team.
This once sickly child, told she would never walk, thus became the first American woman ever to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. Nicknamed “The Black Gazelle” and “The Black Pearl,” Wilma Rudolph became a worldwide celebrity, acclaimed as “the world’s fastest woman,” and was named “Female Athlete of the Year” by The Associated Press.
Despite the adversity she had to overcome as a child, for which she clearly deserved enormous credit, she was always quick to acknowledge that many others played significant roles in her success. “No matter what accomplishments you make,” she once said, “somebody helps you.”
After retiring from running, she spent the rest of her life helping others. She became a teacher, coach, and motivational speaker and was appointed by the U.S. State Department as a Goodwill Ambassador in Africa. She also played a significant role in striking down segregation laws in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee by refusing to participate in any tributes to her unless they were open to all, regardless of the color of their skin.
With all her athletic achievements, Rudolph claimed that her greatest accomplishment was starting a foundation that sponsored athletic outreach programs for underprivileged youth in the ghettoes of more than a dozen major U.S. cities. Until her untimely death of brain cancer at the age of 54, she continued her active involvement in the lives of others.
She was an inspiration to thousands of people whose lives she touched. “Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit,” she wrote, adding these words: “The potential for greatness lives within each of us.”
Wilma Rudolph achieved that greatness, not for her athletic performance, but because of her tenacious spirit and refusal to accept defeat in any aspect of her life.