No Olympian has made a greater impact on sports, race and gender the way Wilma Rudolph has done. In this episode, we look at her life and her eventual triumph at the Rome Olympiad and how she changed the face of athletics forever, and inspired a generation of women track legends.
She was born prematurely on June 23, 1940 in St. Bethlehem, Tenn. She weighed 4 1/2 pounds. The bulk of her childhood was spent in bed. She suffered from double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio. After losing the use of her left leg, she was fitted with metal leg braces when she was 6.
At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Wilma became “the fastest woman in the world” and the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics. She won the 100- and 200-meter races and anchored the U.S. team to victory in the 4 x 100-meter relay, breaking records along the way. In the 100, she tied the world record of 11.3 seconds in the semifinals, then won the final by three yards in 11.0. However, because of a 2.75-meter per second wind — above the acceptable limit of two meters per second — she didn’t receive credit for a world record. In the 200, she broke the Olympic record in the opening heat in 23.2 seconds and won the final in 24.0 seconds. In the relay, despite a poor baton pass, Wilma overtook Germany’s anchor leg, and the Americans, all from Tennessee State, took the gold in 44.5 seconds after setting a world record of 44.4 seconds in the semifinals.
Wilma’s Olympic performances (she also won a bronze medal at age 16 in the relay at Melbourne in 1956) were spectacular. But it is the story of how she got there that makes her accomplishments legendary.
“I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to get them off,” she said. “But when you come from a large, wonderful family, there’s always a way to achieve your goals.”