She made history by becoming the first American woman to win three gold medals in the track and field competition in the Olympic Games in Rome, 1960.
Born into a very large family, to say the least. Her father, Ed Rudolph, had eleven children in his first marriage. That didn't stop old Ed though, he managed to father eight more children in his second marriage. Wilma was the fifth of those eight.
Premature at birth, she weighed only about four and a half pounds. Her mother was what you might call a "domestic" who cleaned houses and her father, (the aforementioned Ed), worked as a porter on railroad cars.Sickly as a child, Wilma was cared for mostly by her older siblings.
At the age of four, Wilma contracted polio. The disease weakened her and made her vulnerable to both pneumonia and scarlet fever. She survived both of the illnesses but, in turn, lost the use of her left leg. For a while, she was forced in to a wheelchair and was later made to wear leg braces. Her doctors in Nashville recommended a routine of massage in order to regain the strength in her leg. Her mother would drive her about 45 miles to Nashville in order to continue the therapy.
After about five years of therapy, at the age of 11, Wilma removed her braces and was able to walk by herself. She then had to use an orthopedic shoe in order walk normally. With practice, after about two years, Wilma was able to remove the shoe and walk normally, contradicting every prediction made by doctors about her "disability".
Rudoplh turned to basketball as her first love of sports. As a sophomore in high school she set a then state record by scoring 803 points in 25 games. When she was fourteen, she caught the attention of the track coach at Tennessee State University. She trained with him and members of the team. In four years of high school track and field, she never lost a race.
At the age of sixteen, she qualified for the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia and came home with a bronze medal.
Rudoplh entered Tennessee State University in 1957 with a major in elementary education. Most of her time, however, was consumed with running and she qualified for the 1960 Rome Olympics.
Rudolph won all three of her events in dramatic fashion. In both the 100 and 200 meter dash, she finished at least 3 yards ahead of the nearest competitor. In the 400 meter relay, she brought the American team from behind to win the gold. It remains one of the standout performances in the history of the Olympics.
Although given ticker tape parades and an official invitation to the White House by John F. Kennedy, Rudolph believed that the treatment she received was shallow. She was treated like a star but not given the money to live like one. Quoted in Ebony Magazine, she said, " You become world famous and you sit with kings and queens, and then your first job is just a job. You can't go back tio living the way you did before because you've been taken out of one setting and shown the other. That becomes a struggle and makes you struggle."
There's no doubt that had Wilma Rudolph accomplished what she did, after overcoming the odds that she did, in today's world, the endorsments, platitudes and financial rewards would have been several times greater than what she received during her lifetime.