“Don’t blink, you might miss her,” was the admonishment to those watching Wilma Rudolph, who became the fastest woman in the world at the 1960 Olympics. Rudolph was the first American woman to receive three gold medals in one Olympics, and the story of how she got there is what makes her achievements legendary.
Born prematurely in 1940 Bethlehem, Tennessee, she spent her childhood in bed, suffering from illnesses including pneumonia and scarlet fever. After contracting polio and losing use of her left leg, Rudolph was fitted with braces. Refusing to accept the limitations imposed upon her, when nobody was around she would take off her braces and practice walking.
Her determination paid off and by age 9 she was out of her braces and playing basketball with her brothers in the yard. Within a few years she was a basketball star in high school, setting a record of 49 points in one game.
Soon after that feat Tennesse State track coach Ed Temple noticed her speed and invited her to join team practices.
Under his guidance, it was here Rudolph developed the speed that made her famous. “I don’t know why I run so fast,” she would say, “I just run.”
After her history making performance at the 1960 Olympic games where she won gold medals in 100 meter, 200 meter and relay, Rudolph became a celebrity, inspiring praise and accolades worldwide. “She’s done more for her country than what the U.S. could have paid her for,” Temple remarked.
She was voted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1973 and National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1974. In spite of her tremendous success, she said her greatest accomplishment was creating the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a not for profit community sports program.
Rudolph died of brain cancer on November 12, 1994. Of her passing, Bill Milliken, a 1960 teammate of Rudolph’s said, “She was beautiful, she was nice, and she was the best.”