Juju's Inspiration: Wilma Rudolph Ran for Her Country, Against Discrimination

PHOTO Wilma Ruldolf, right, chases Olympic gold in 1960.

Half a century ago, gold medal-winning runner Wilma Rudolph was so fast that she ran right into the pages of history.

Her journey to Olympic glory is nothing short of awe inspiring.

It began in the dirt-poor segregated southern town of Clarkville, Tenn., in 1940. She was the 20th of 22 children and weighed just four pounds at birth. The sickly child was stricken with scarlet fever, pneumonia and even polio. Doctors said it was unlikely she would ever walk.

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But through sheer force of will, Rudolph learned to walk again with leg braces and wore them until she was nine. By high school, she was a basketball star and was recruited to Tennessee State -- the first member of her family to go to college.

There, she met coach Edward Temple. During Temple's storied 44-year career, he coached 40 Olympians -- including Rudolph.

"You got to realize this too -- you can't make a racehorse out of a mule," he said laughing. "See, you got to have some racehorse in you. She worked hard, no doubt about it, and she had that burning desire."

Temple said it took a while for Rudolph to run into the spotlight. When she won her first Olympic gold in 1960 in the 100-meter dash, Temple was confused at the news.

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"I heard the crowd roar and everything and then somebody ran over and said, 'Wilma won.' I said, 'Won what?'" Temple said.

He was especially caught off guard because earlier Rudolph had sprained her ankle. That didn't stop her from winning her first gold in the 100-meter dash, her second in the 200-meter dash or her third in the 4 x 100-meter relay.

The race started out rough -- Rudolph fumbled with the baton and fell behind. But then she took off.

"The first 75 yards I think is the fastest I've ever seen anybody run," Temple said. "She caught them all in 75 yards."

Rudolph, the girl who was told she'd never walk again, became the fastest woman in the world with the help of Temple.

"We were all in tears at that time and the greatest thrill about the relay team is that I was able to be with three people who I really had worked with for years and the four of us crowding on that one step to receive our gold medal," she said after the win.

But even three gold medals didn't change her life back home. Her life-long friend, Congresswoman Carolyn Kilpatrick remembers it well.

"She came back to Nashville, Tenn., and couldn't eat at the lunch counter," Kilpatrick said. "It was still very much a racial society."

The mayor of Clarksville, Tenn., offered two parades: one for whites and one for blacks. Rudolph refused -- there would be one parade, she said, or none at all. She got her wish.

It was the first desegregated event in Clarksville.

"That was her," Temple said simply. "She told 'em. She told 'em."

An impressed President John F. Kennedy asked to meet her.

"He was so excited to meet Wilma because he seen her run on television and everything," Temple said. "We sat there and they talked 15, 20 minutes."

Over the years, she dazzled more than one president. Former President Bill Clinton called her "a great one."

Later in life, Rudolph became a teacher and inspired countless young people along the way before she died in 1994 of brain cancer.

"I think that my mother's legacy is that sports and education go hand in hand," Rudolph's daughter, Djuana Bowers, said.

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