8/15/08 - olympians past

In today's excerpt - Wilma Rudolph (1940-1994), the superstar Olympic athlete who was discovered to have polio at the age of four. In the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field during a single Olympic Games, despite running on a sprained ankle. The fastest woman on earth, Rudolph elevated women's track to a major presence in the United States and was known in America as 'The Tennessee Tornado', in Italy as 'La Gazzella Nera' (the Black Gazelle) and in France as 'La Perle Noire' (The Black Pearl):

"As a child, Wilma was underweight and sickly, and also special and spoiled -- not an easy circumstance in the boisterous family of railroad man Ed Rudolph and his wife, Blanche, who together brought home less than $2,500 year and lived without indoor plumbing in a dusty red-framed house at 644 Kellogg Street, in the poor and black section of Clarksville [Tennessee]. ... The Rudolphs had twenty-two children between them, although only eight together and rarely more than that number living with them at one time. Wilma was the fifth of the final group of eight. Her siblings, competing for attention in the cacophony of the overstretched household, did not begrudge her the time and care she needed, though they groused that she never had to do the dishes and teased her for being a crybaby.

"During the worst years of Wilma's childhood infirmity, they took turns carrying her from room to room. They massaged her polio-crippled left leg four times a day and were part of the troupe accompanying her down to Meharry Medical College in Nashville, the nation's leading training hospital for black physicians, for heat and water therapy on the one day a week that their mother, a maid, did not have to work in the large homes on the white side of town. 'The trips to Nashville, we would always go to the Greyhound bus station and get on this huge, big bus, and it seemed like such a long ride to Nashville because of all the stops in between,' recalled Yvonne Rudolph, her older sister. 'We would go to the hospital and it seemed like a huge building, so different from anything in Clarksville. Wilma was shy, and sometimes she would just cry because she didn't like it at all. But we kept telling her that it would make her better and she would feel better, and she would not always have to wear the brace. I think that's what really kept her going, because she knew one day she would not have to wear it.'

"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 off 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."



David Maraniss


Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World


Simon & Schuster


Copyright 2008 by David Maraniss


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