Wilma Rudolf was born June 23rd, 1940 in Tennessee, and was one of 22 children. Wilma was also born premature, just 4.5 pounds, at a time when medicine was not as advanced as today. At four, Wilma contracted Polio (infantile paralysis) and due to how damaging this was to her body, was forced to wear a clunky metal braces and endure many surgeries. For two years, she and her mother traveled 50 miles twice a week for intensive hospital care. She needed a lot of care, and family took turns massaging her then crippled legs.
Wilma suffered additional polio attacks and also scarlet fever (which untreated can kill). But little by little, her health improved and the braces came off after age 12. Eventually, Wilma, like most little siblings, wanted to run track like her big sister, but she was a little shaky, she was only just starting to walk naturally. Her father told the coach they were a packaged deal, and had to take both girls, and so Wilma was accepted to her very first track team. And Wilma worked hard.
Who knew this little girl who was so sick most of her life, and fought paralysis for years would go on to compete in the Olympics at the age of 16, just 4 years after walking unaided. Wilma competed in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia and won a bronze medal in track! A natural athlete was behind all of those years of trauma, but it was hard work and strength that led to her incredible rise.
Times were different for athletes then, especially poor black athletes. Wilma just won an Olympic Medal, but her house did not have indoor plumbing. Wilma had to borrow a dress for her prom. At 17, Wilma became pregnant and did not run track her formative senior year of high school. An incredibly strong family, her sister took care of her baby so Wilma could go to college, grow, and keep training.
At 20 and in her second Olympics, Wilma became a global legend. Wilma won an unprecedented 3 Gold Medals in the 1960 Olympics in Rome for Track, and in doing so, became the very first woman to ever win 3 Gold Medals at a single Olympics. She also did this while breaking 3 different world records. Nothing like this had ever happened, and Wilma became world news. And of course, none of her competitors had spent more than half of their lives unable to walk. It was the first Summer Olympics televised in the US, before the Civil Rights bill was even written, and the images were incredible and new. Wilma Won. Cassius Clay won Gold. Abebe Bilika from Ethiopia won Gold in the men's marathon barefoot. Wilma's story is still unforgettable, she was beautiful, elegant and the world loved her.
When she returned home to Clarksville, Tennessee, her homecoming parade and banquet were Clarksville's first fully integrated events in city history. Wilma did not live in an age of major endorsements like today. She returned to home, married and became a school teacher in her own elementary school, eventually coaching youth program. Sadly Wilma passed in 1994 of brain cancer, but what she accomplished has inspired and paved the way for so many, and will live on.