Wilma Rudolph, who overcame crip¬ pling polio to win three gold medals in track events at the 1960 Summer Olympics, was born in Bethlehem, Ten¬ nessee, 17th in a line of 19 children. Bom prematurely, she had to fight for her life from the beginning. Wilma spent her early childhood bedridden, susceptible to every¬ thing, and surrounded by an enormous family.
Though Wilma was always strug¬ gling to regain her health, the hardest fight was the one she waged against polio, which stmck when she was four years old. Told she would never walk again, Wilma was confined to her bed, but her parents refused to accept defeat and waged a family war against the effects of the disease.
Every member of the family was put to the task of massaging and exercising Wilma’s leg muscles, performing an early form of physical therapy. Wilma’s mother took time off from her job as a maid to drive her daugh¬ ter to a specialist 90 miles away once a week, and slowly, through constant effort, Wilma began to improve. By the time she was eight, she could walk again with the help of a brace.
Soon after that, she was able to walk without the brace, though she had to wear a special shoe. Finally she could go to school. Her limp was pro¬ nounced at first, but Wilma accepted challenges like a winner.
She began playing basketball with her many brothers, strengthening her muscles, her agility, and her balance, and prac¬ ticing by herself once she’d worn them out. At age 11 Wilma performed what would have seemed like a mira¬ cle to the doctors who had doubted her. She took off her special shoe and played basketball barefoot, proving once and for all that she had mastered the use of her legs.
Basketball was the sport she had taught herself to excel in and she kept with it, becoming an all-state high school champion when she was 15. She scored 803 points in the space of 25 games, breaking the state record for girls’ basketball. At the same time, she was excelling in track and field.
As a senior in high school, Rudolph qual¬ ified for the 1956 Olympics, held in Mel¬ bourne, Australia. She won a bronze medal in the 400-meter relay and came home deter¬ mined to go even further. She qualified again in 1960, and this time went to Rome, Italy, where she not only won a gold medal in the 400-meter relay, but also in the 100- and 200-meter relays. Voted US Female Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press, Wilma Rudolph returned to the United States as “the fastest woman in the world.”