The Groundbreaking Wilma Rudolph Part 1: Just Get Me the Stick!

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Left-right: Wilma Rudolph, Lucinda Williams, Barbara Jones and Martha Hudson at the Rome Olympics

She was by then the Queen of Rome at the 1960 Summer Olympics. American sprinter, Wilma Rudolph, had already won gold in the women’s 100- and 200-meter sprints. But her teammates from the famed Tennessee State Tigerbelles had been left out of the medal count. The 4×100 was their chance to join Rudolph in Olympic glory. And Rudolph, as described in David Maraniss’ fantastic book, Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed the World, promised to help them get the gold on one condition:

In the warm-up room before the race, the Tigerbelles huddled and prayed together. “Just get me that stick,” Rudolph, who would run the anchor leg, said at the end. “Just get me that stick, and we’re going to get on that stand. We’re going to win that gold medal!” her teammates could barely contain themselves; no jealousy now, just fire burning inside.

Maraniss went on to tell the story how her teammate, Lucinda Williams, in the third leg was going so fast heading into the exchange with the anchor, Rudolph, that they needed two attempts to get Rudolph the baton, at one point Rudolph needing to stop to grab it. In the fumbled exchange, Maraniss wrote that the team lost about a meter to the competition in that moment. But like a locomotive, Rudolph reached the leaders at about 60 meters, and then blew past them to win gold for the team.

Not only did the Tigerbelles share a momentous team victory, Rudolph’s star in Rome and the world went super nova, the first ever American to win three track gold medals in a single Games. When President Kennedy heard that Rudolph was in Washington DC a few months after her return from Rome, he invited Rudolph to the White House and spent so much time talking with her in the Oval Office that he kept his next appointment cooling his heels for thirty minutes.

But as a child, Rudolph, was not the radiant and confident person she was to become. She was born prematurely in 1940, and due to polio, had to deal with a left leg and foot that twisted unnaturally and made it difficult for her to walk. Doctors had her wear braces and special shoes, and she had to be carried from room to room by family members. As one could imagine, to be seen as so different from your family and friends must be so terribly hard on a child. Maraniss wrote:

As Wilma later described her early childhood, she was depressed and lonely at first, especially when she had to watch her brothers and sisters run off to school while she stayed home, burdened with the dead weight of the heavy braces. She felt rejected, she said, and would close her eyes “and just drift into a sinking feeling, going down, down, down.” Soon her loneliness turned to anger. She hated the fact that her peers always teased her. She didn’t like any of her supposed friends. She wondered whether living just meant being sick all the time, and told herself it had to be more than that, and she started fighting back, determined to beat the illness.

Maraniss went on to describe how Rudolph’s condition gradually improved to the point that she was able to secretly remove her braces so she could run around outside with her siblings. And then her parents did something wonderful, presenting Rudolph with a gift so ordinary and yet so life affirming that it transformed the shy, despondent girl into one filled with promise, bursting with energy.

Then one day her father, who did the shopping in the family, came home with regular shoes for Wilma, marking a dramatic change in her life. As Yvonne remembered the scene: “They were no longer the high-top shoes that she had to have with the braces. And my mother took her in to a room all by herself; she didn’t even let us know she had these shoes. And they put them on her, and she came out of the room, and she was beaming all over. It was like she was a whole new little girl. And after that it was like she knew she was not different, and it gave her more confidence at that point.”

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After that, you couldn’t stop Rudolph from running. A blur on the basketball courts, she picked up the nickname “Skeeter” because she flitted about so quickly like a mosquito. Her head coach at Tennessee State, Ed Temple, marveled at this determined young woman, but also wasn’t sure if she had everything needed to be a champion. Just prior to the 100-meter finals, Temple hid in the tunnels of the Stadio Olimpico, barely able to see Skeeter in lane 3. Rudolph, a notorious slow starter, fell behind. But he also knew that Rudolph, like today’s sprinting God, Usain Bolt, finished like a locomotive.

According to Maraniss, Temple had to be told that Rudolph had won easily in a blazing 11 second, what would have been a world record if not for the wind. His reaction? “You’re joking.” I’m sure it was a remark born out of ambivalence, that moment when one thinks one has a champion, but is not really sure, until proof is presented on a shining platter. That moment, when Rudolph crossed the tape to become the fastest women in the world, marked that rite of passage for champions, when all doubt is erased, expectations and achievements merge, and all is right in the world.