Wilma Rudolph

Wilma Rudolph/AP
Wilma Rudolph/AP

Wilma Glodean Rudolph was born June 23, 1940, near Clarksville, Tennessee. She was the first American woman runner in Olympic history to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. A feat she accomplished in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome.

However, life didn't start out so glorious for Rudolph. If someone would have told her parents that their crippled child would go on to become an Olympic superstar, they surely would have called the prognosticator "nuts." She was born into a family where 19 children had been born ahead of her. She would eventually have 21 brothers and sisters. Her father, a railroad porter and her mother, a domestic worker were hard working, proud people who left no stone unturned when it came to taking care of their children.

But times were hard in 1940, Wilma weighed only 4.5 pounds at birth but could not receive treatment at the only local hospital because it was "For Whites Only." Wilma was hit by one disease after another: measles, mumps, scarlet fever, chicken pox and double pneumonia.

The worst was yet to come. Wilma's foot and leg become weaker and weaker and she was left without the use of one leg. Finally able to get her daughter to a doctor Mrs. Rudolph received unwelcome news. The doctor told Mrs. Rudolph that young Wilma had polio and would never be cured.

However, the economic depression and hardships her family had already suffered through had proved to Wilma's mother that the family would not quit and Mrs. Rudolph would not take the doctor's diagnosis as a final one.

Mrs Rudolph discovered the Fisk University medical college in Nashville some 50 miles away. And on the family's meager earnings she managed to take Wilma to the college for physical therapy twice a week for two years.

The staff taught Wilma's mother how to help her child do the exercises at home. Eventually Wilma was able to walk with a big metal leg brace. It became a family affair of encouragement and help with the exercises. Constant care and exercise by Rudolph and her family finally enabled Wilma to learn to walk at the age of eight. Determined to keep making progress her continued exercise enabled her to discard her specially reinforced shoe three years afterwards. Having overcome overwhelming odds already, Wilma set her sight on a new task.

Wilma always seemed to follow in the footsteps of her older sister Yolanda. When Yolanda decided to play basketball in junior high so did Wilma. For three years Wilma practiced and exercised and rode the bench. Her coach didn't put her in one game. Finally, her hard work paid off an she became her high school's starting guard. She set state records for scoring and led her team to a state championship.

It was playing basketball that Rudolph was first noticed by Tennessee State University track coach Ed Temple. He invited her to a summer sports camp where she excelled in track events. In 1956, at the age of 16, she was the bronze medal winning 4 x 100-metre relay team at the Melbourne Olympics. This was only the beginning.

Rome, 1960 was her next triumph and where she made United States track history. Rudolph won gold medals in the 100-metre dash (tying the world record: 11.3 seconds), the 200-metre dash , and as a member of the 4 x 100-metre relay team, which had set a world record of 44.4 seconds in a semifinal race. In 1961 she was named the AAU's most outstanding amateur athlete.

Wilma's proudest accomplishment did not happen on the field of athletics but in her home town. Wilma refused to go along with segregationist policies of the time and insisted that her homecoming parade in Clarksville be open to everyone and that the event would be completely integrated.

Despite some opposition, her victory parade was a success as the town's first racially integrated event. Wilma was not satisfied to stop with one token success, she went on to participate in protests in the city until the segregation laws were struck down.

Wilma had taken time out from college to devote herself to her track efforts. She returned to Tennessee State and earned her Bachelor's degree in Education in 1963. She taught school and coached track in Clarksville for a while but eventually moved on to coaching jobs in Maine and Indiana.

She became a national broadcaster for Track and Field events and co-host of a network radio show. She never quit working with children. As part of Operation Champion she worked to train inner city teenagers in athletics. She started the Wilma Rudolph Foundation in 1982 to further encourage community-based track and field programs as well as academic assistance and support..

Wilma Rudolph died from brain cancer in her home in Nashville, Tennessee on November 12, 1994. She was only 54.