The perseverance of strength

Published 5:41 pm Friday, April 16, 2021

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If I could ask Wilma Rudolph and Althea Gibson about their rise to excellence in their respective sports it would deal with their perseverance of strength. Being born in the segregated South pushed these women of many firsts toward the experience of unlimited greatness. Born on June 23, 1940 in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee to working class parents Blanche and Ed Rudolph, Wilma suffered many illnesses-one right after another. Of all the diseases she suffered, polio was the most devastating crippling Wilma so that she needed braces to walk. Going to school was out of the question-her parents could not afford the cost of special education or a tutor. The solution-Ms. Rudolph was tutored at home by her mother. I would ask Wilma if wearing braces from age seven to eleven made her self-conscious. Self-determination was the answer because after using those braces to aid her walking and later wearing specially designed shoes, Wilma put those away and began participating in basketball and track at age 14.
Wilma attended Burt High School in Clarksville, Tennessee, where she broke the state girls record in those sports. She was fortunate to be mentored by Ed Temple a coach at Tennessee State University in track and field. In 1956 Wilma’s team competed in the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia and earned a bronze medal in the relay race. Ms. Rudolph received a full scholarship to TSU and earned her Bachelor’s degree in Education. Her training continued under Coach Temple. In 1960 Wilma set the world record for the 200-meter dash. All of that training paid off because Ms. Rudolph became the first American woman to win three medals in the Olympic Games in Rome-the 100 meter dash, the 200 meter dash and the 400 meter relay. Wilma received a hero’s welcome in Tennessee in an integrated parade as well as many accolades including the Sullivan Award given to the top African American athlete in the U. S.
It is not surprising that Wilma gave back to young people as a coach and teacher. Ms. Rudolph founded the Wilma Rudolph Foundation serving as a good will ambassador for sports and lecturer. Wilma’s faith in God sustained her and helped in overcoming racism. In 1963 Wilma married Robert Eldridge and raised four children Yoland, Dijuanna, Robert, Jr. and Xurry. Sadly, on November 12, 1994 Wilma Rudolph died at home in Brentwood, TN from a brain tumor at age 54.
 I would pose the same question to Althea Gibson concerning how if having unsuccessful school years made the daughter of Daniel and Anne Gibson born in Silver, South Carolina on August 25, 1927 and reared in Harlem, NY self-conscious. Althea graduated junior high school and attended the Yorkville Trade School in 1941. Tennis was the passion that clicked for her helping her cope with segregation and discrimination. Ms. Gibson won medals in local competitions and with mentors Buddy Walker, Juan Serrell, Dr. Hubert Eaton and Dr. Walter Johnson fine-tuned her skills. In late forties and fifties she won 56 singles and doubles matches during her amateur career. Furthermore, Althea won her first international title, the Caribbean Championship in Montego Bay, Jamaica followed by 11 major titles including the 1956 French Championship, Wimbledon, the Australian Doubles and the U. S. Open. Among her accolades was the 1959 Associate Press’s Female Athlete of the Year. Moreover, Althea was a prolific golfer playing in 171 LPGA tournaments. An inspiration to many players since the 1960’s unfortunately, Althea Gibson died on September 21, 2003 at age 84.
We can see in the lives of these phenomenal women the athleticism which emerged despite hardships and racism solidifying their place in African American and sports history. Their inspiration not only lies in their athletic prowess but in their status as mentors and role models demonstrating the pressing through as a testament to Wilma Rudolph’s and Althea Gibson’s perseverance of strength influencing a whole generation of young people.
Judy Moore is a tour guide with The Central High Museum and lives in Wylliesburg. She can be reached at