Author Pat Zietlow Miller began her writing career in college as a sports reporter and has since had a fascination with Wilma Rudolph, the three-time Olympic gold medalist whose path to becoming a history-making track star and an American icon is as extraordinary as her many achievements. And it’s the legendary Wilma who inspires “The Quickest Kid in Clarksville,” Pat’s just released children’s book (age 5-8), which is described as “a timeless story of dreams, determination, and the power of friendship.”
To fully understand the power of the lessons in Pat’s book, you need to know the power of Wilma Rudolph. Before earning the title of “fastest woman in the world” and becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics, there was a time in Wilma’s very early life when her doctors thought she would never walk. But, she said, “My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.” So against all odds, the future sprinter made other plans for herself.
One of 22 children, Wilma was born on June 23, 1940 in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee to a poor family. She was premature, weighing just 4.5 pounds, and spent the bulk of her childhood in bed battling various illnesses including double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio, which caused temporary loss of movement in her left leg. By age 6, Wilma had to wear metal braces on her legs. That didn’t stop her.
“The triumph can’t be had without the struggle.” – Wilma Rudolph
With the help of her mother and her family, Wilma challenged her constraints and adopted a positive mindset to overcome her paralysis. She began physical therapy to regain strength in her left leg and her older siblings massaged her legs on daily basis. After five years of treatment, to the shock of her doctors, Wilma removed her leg brace and walked by herself for the first time. Two years later, her brothers set up a basketball hoop in the family yard, and 13-year-old Wilma not only picked up the game… she mastered it.
In high school, Wilma became an all-state player, setting a Tennessee state record of 49 points in one game. Known for her speed on the court, Wilma caught the attention of a lot of people, including a man named Ed Temple, a highly dedicated and unpaid track coach from Tennessee State. He was so impressed that he asked Wilma’s basketball coach to form a girls’ track team so he could groom her to practice with his college team, which Wilma eventually started doing while she was still in high school. Her hard work and determination paid off, once again.
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At age 16, Wilma Rudolph made her Olympic debut at the 1956 Melbourne Games as part of the American 4x100m relay team that claimed a bronze medal. But her truly defining moment came four short years later at the 1960 Games in Rome, Italy where she became “the fastest woman in the world” and the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics. Wilma won the 100- and 200-meter races and anchored the U.S. team to victory in the 4x100m relay, breaking three world records in the process.
Her brilliant career ended with her retirement in 1962 and in her post-Olympic years Wilma worked as a track coach at Indiana’s DePauw University and served as a U.S. Goodwill Ambassador to French West Africa. Along the way, she inspired countless young athletes, including Florence Griffith Joyner, a.k.a. track and field champion Flo-Jo, who became the next woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics (1988).
In honor of her tremendous achievements, Wilma was inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame (1973), the National Track and Field Hall of Fame (1974), as well as the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame. But, above all else, Wilma considered her greatest accomplishment to be the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a not-for-profit, community-based amateur sports program she founded.
Tragically, Wilma Rudolph died at age 54 from brain cancer on November 12, 1994. Now twenty-two years later she lives on in the pages of Pat Zietlow Miller’s book to inspire “The Quickest Kid in Clarksville”… and anyone who reads it.
It’s the day before the big parade. Alta can only think about one thing: Wilma Rudolph, three-time Olympic gold medalist. She’ll be riding on a float tomorrow. See, Alta is the quickest kid in Clarksville, Tennessee, just like Wilma once was.
It doesn’t matter that Alta’s shoes have holes because Wilma came from hard times, too. But what happens when a new girl with shiny new shoes comes along and challenges Alta to a race? Will she still be the quickest kid?
Pat Zietlow Miller’s book is beautifully illustrated by Frank Morrison, a Coretta Scott King Honor Award winner.