Wilma Rudolph was born prematurely and weighed just 4 ½ pounds. She was often sick as a child and at age 4, suffered from several ailments, including double pneumonia and scarlet fever. She contracted polio. Her left leg was paralyzed. She was fitted for a metal brace that she wore for several years to help her get around. She wore a specially-made shoe to give her foot added support.
But with helpful massages from her many siblings (Rudolph’s father had 22 children from his two marriages) and her mother’s dogged determination, Rudolph’s leg began to heal. Her mother took Rudolph weekly to Nashville via bus, a 90-minute roundtrip to the closest doctor they could find to treat Rudolph in the segregated south.
“My doctor told me I would never walk again,” Rudolph wrote in her autobiography, Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph. “My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”
By age 11, somehow, Rudolph was able to run. And she became quite a star on the basketball court as well.
But it was Rudolph’s amazing speed that really made her stand out. As a 16-year-old high school student, Rudolph qualified for the U.S. Olympic Team in the Melbourne 1956 Olympic Games, bringing home a bronze medal from the 4×100-meter relay team.
In 1958, as a high school senior, Rudolph became pregnant and had her first child, Yolanda. While that derailed her basketball career, Rudolph was determined to get back on the track and improve her times.
At the Rome 1960 Olympic Games, Rudolph turned in one of the finest performances by an American Olympian to that date. She took gold in the 100- and 200-meter dash races, as well as the 4×100-meter relay. Her time in the 100 was faster than the world record, but was wind-aided; she set an Olympic record in the 200 in a preliminary heat. In one week, Rudolph laid claim to the title of Fastest Woman in the World and became the first American woman to win three gold medals at a single Olympic Games.
Following The Olympics, Rudolph continued racing for two more years before retiring from competition – even though she still held the world record in each of the events in which she won Olympic gold.
Rudolph had brain cancer and throat cancer and died in 1994. She was 54 years old.