Summary: Go! You heard God call, you are ready for the work now go out and make disciples.
The name Wilma Rudolph is an important one in sports history in general and women’s sports history in particular. For those of you my age and older, it should be a recognizable name. And those of you who are younger — and who have never heard of her — ought to hear her story of perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds against her.
Wilma Rudolph was the twentieth of 22 children. She was born prematurely and doctors didn’t expect her to live. She did, but at age four she contracted pneumonia and scarlet fever. As a result, her left leg was paralyzed and her foot was twisted. The result was wearing a brace on her leg.
At the age of 9, she removed the metal leg brace she had depended on for the past five years and began making herself walk without it. It was never easy but she was determined to be like the other girls.
By age 13, she had developed a rhythmic walk, which doctors said was a miracle. That same year, she decided she wanted first to play basketball. Then, as something to do when basketball season was over, she began to run. She entered her first race and came in last place.
For the next three years, she came in dead last in every race she entered. But she kept on running until the day came when she finally didn’t come in last and then the day came when she actually won a race.
Eventually, the little girl who was not supposed to be able to walk without braces, much less run, made it all the way to the Olympics. Her first trip was to the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne Australia she came home with a bronze medal in the 4X100 meter relay.
At the 1960 Rome Olympics Wilma Rudolph was declared to be the fastest woman alive, a title given to the winner of the Olympic 100 Meter champion. The Italians began calling her La Gazzella Negra, or The Black Gazelle. She became the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics. She won the 100- and 200-meter races and anchored the U.S. team to victory in the 4 x 100-meter relay, breaking or tying world records along the way.
Wilma Rudolph was from Clarksville Tennessee. She accomplished a great deal on the track, especially when we consider the odds stacked against her from birth. In 2000 Sports Illustrated named her number one among 20th century sports figures in Tennessee.
As much, however, as Wilma Rudolph accomplished on the track, she was also accomplished the same or more off the track. Wilma earned her Bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Tennessee State University and went on to teach at the elementary school she grew up in, and she coached track at her former high school. She became a television personality and worked in both the civil rights movement and the women’s movement. She is a member of the US Olympic Hall of Fame and the Women’s Hall of Fame.
It all happened because this young lady who was not even supposed to live was determined to be like all the other girls. She became much more than that. First she forced herself to learn to walk without her brace. Then she had the unwavering goal to run and then to win. Many of us, and I do include me in this statement, would never have the inner fire to take off the braces much less have the determination to run, all the way to the Olympics.
It all happened because she figuratively, at first, then literally later, stepped up to the starting line to take her mark. Perhaps she heard a calling to be more than her circumstances seemed to allow her to be.
She took the brace off. She made herself learn to walk and then to run. She was getting set for the race ahead. She was getting prepared. She wouldn’t quit. No matter how many times she got beat, she wouldn’t stop. She was absolutely determined to be an winner.
She listened to her coaches and ignored her doubters. She pushed her way forward until one day she heard “Go.” It may have actually been a starter’s gun she heard that started her off in a track event but at the same time she was hearing the word “Go” for the race that is life.
This morning we are concluding our series, “The Race,” where we are taking a look at the race as a metaphor for the life in faith. Several places in the New Testament use this metaphor, including our theme lesson for this series, the words from Hebrews 12. Imagine a great stadium filled with spectators and gathering of runners down on the track. When most runners come out onto the track, they are still wearing warm-ups. They shed them in order to rid themselves of the added weight and bulk of these extra clothes, allowing them to run better, to run faster. Much in the same way the writer of Hebrews instructs us to cast aside the weight of sin so that we can run with perseverance the race before us.