Few could have predicted that a child battling polio would one day win three Olympic gold medals on the track.
Once burdened by a leg brace and told she might never walk again, Wilma Rudolph won the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay at the 1960 Rome Olympics as the first American woman win three track and field gold medals a single Games.
Rudolph would become one of the most beloved figures in Olympic history and inspire generations of athletes with her speed, grace and story of perseverance. She completed her gold medal hat trick 60 years ago today as part of a 4x100m relay.
Born prematurely in Clarksville, Tennessee, Rudolph was the 20th of 22 children. During childhood, she fought pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio, which temporarily paralyzed her left leg and required her to wear a brace. Rudolph and her mother drove back and forth to Nashville – about 50 miles each way – so she could receive treatment. In between, her family members took turns massaging her leg.
“My doctor told me I would never walk again,” Rudolph wrote in her autobiography. “My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”
Rudolph progressed from the leg brace to an orthopedic shoe until she could walk unassisted. Soon, she took to sports, joining her school’s basketball team as a teenager.
She caught the attention of Ed Temple, coach of the Tigerbelles track team at Tennessee State, while he refereed a game in Clarksville. Temple invited Rudolph to attend his summer camp. She went to her first Olympics in 1956 at age 16, when she won a bronze medal in the 4x100m.
Four years later in Rome, Rudolph tied the world record of 11.3 seconds in the 100m semifinals, then easily won the final in 11.0 seconds (too much tailwind prevented it from being a world record). Three days later, she won the 200m. But Rudolph’s final race may have been the most important to her.
“The race that I think that she wanted more than anything else was the 4x100m relay,” Ed Temple told NBC Sports on “The Olympic Show” leading up to the 2000 Sydney Games. “And that was because her teammates had been in the 100m and the 200m, and they didn’t win any medals. And she was determined that they were gonna win a gold medal.”
On Sept. 8, 1960, a team made up entirely of Tennessee State Tigerbelles won the 4x100m, with Rudolph as the anchor. That completed her gold-medal sweep in Rome.
Known for her graciousness and charming demeanor, she became an international star.
“Mr. Temple would always say that she was a person that never met a stranger,” Wyomia Tyus, a three-time Olympic gold medalist and one of Rudolph’s Tigerbelles teammates, said in a recent telephone interview.
Rudolph retired in 1962. Among her post-track pursuits, she taught second grade and later became a track coach at DePauw University in Indiana. But Rudolph admitted in her autobiography “Wilma” that life as an Olympic champion wasn’t what many expected it to be.
“I was besieged with money problems,” she wrote. “People were always expecting me to be a star, but I wasn’t making the money to live like one. I felt exploited both as a woman and as a Black person.”
In 1980, Tennessee State named its indoor track in her honor. She was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the Women’s Sports Foundation Hall of Fame, Black Athletes Hall of Fame and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame.
Rudolph moved back to her home state in 1992, becoming a vice president for Nashville’s Baptist Hospital. Two years later, she was diagnosed with brain and throat cancer. She died on Nov. 12, 1994, at age 54.
Her legacy continues to stir inspiration on and off the track.
“She had a grace of her own,” Rudolph’s Rome relay teammate Lucinda Williams said on “The Olympic Show.” “She carried with her the pride and the joy, the pain, the heartaches of being a female athlete.”
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