From the time she was born, the odds seemed stacked against Wilma Rudolph. As the 20th of 22 children growing up in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, outside of Nashville, her family came from modest roots, with her dad working as a porter and her mom as a cleaning person. And then when she was 4 years old, she got both pneumonia and scarlet fever, leaving one of her legs “useless,” as she described.
“When I was little, I always wanted to be someone else,” she wrote for the Chicago Tribune. “We never think that we can make the accomplishment that we wanted to make in our lives.”
While that sentiment may feel relatable, especially to someone who was thrown so many curveballs so early in life, Rudolph’s ability to wish for another life proved that determination can overcome the odds — even if it’s as extreme as going from being confined to a leg brace as a child to becoming an Olympic track and field champion less than two decades later.
At the 1960 Rome Olympics, she was quickly dubbed “the fastest woman in the world,” and became the first American woman to win three golds in one Olympics, which she earned in the 100- and 200-meter races, as well as the 4×100-meter team race. A true miracle transformation, all thanks to her relentless spirit.
Rudolph was bedridden for much of her childhood
Born prematurely on June 23, 1940, Rudolph only weighed 4.5 pounds at birth, causing her to spend much of her early years in bed. Eventually, she lost use of her left leg and was given a metal brace. Her mother never gave up on her — driving 90 miles to a doctor in the segregated south that would treat her.
But more than anything, it was her mom’s positive thinking that influenced the young Rudolph: “My doctor told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother,” she wrote in her autobiography Wilma: The Story of Wilma Rudolph.
While she knew that the brace was important to her recovery, she also admitted that she would often try to take it off. “When you come from a large wonderful family, there’s always a way to achieve your goals, especially when you don’t want your parents knowing them,” she wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “I would take off my braces, then station my brothers and sisters all through the house and they would tell me if my parents were coming and then I’d hurry and put the braces back on.”
For four or five years, Rudolph hid her secret from her parents, citing her Southern Baptist background for instilling guilt in her for breaking the rules. “But one day I said to my doctor: ‘I want to show you something,’” she said.
To both her doctor and mother’s surprise, she walked across the floor, without the brace.
A basketball coach laughed at her for wanting to join the team
With both legs free, it was like Rudolph was making up for lost time. When she was 12, she loved challenging the neighborhood boys in running and jumping. “I could beat most of them and the ones that I couldn’t beat, I had plenty of brothers who would take care of that for me,” she wrote.
But it was at that time that she realized how ingrained in her spirit it was to prove her greatness. “I wanted to show that there was something special inside me,” she continued. “Everybody is special. You just have to realize it within yourself.”
Setting her sights on basketball, she would arrive early at the gym to try to catch the coach’s eye. With no luck, she decided to talk to him, rehearsing exactly what she was going to say. But when the time came, all she could blurt out was “If you will give me 10 minutes of your time, I will make you a world-class athlete.”
Her words were met with hysterics. “I’ll never forget how he laughed,” Rudolph wrote. But he did give her a chance to show him that she could keep up with the rest of the team. Despite that special attention, he still didn’t choose her for the team.
Her dad convinced the coach to let her on the team
One day, she found the coach at her home, speaking to her father. “I couldn’t enter the room because I hadn’t been invited, so I ended up standing behind the door listening to an adult conversation,” she admitted.
As it turned out, the coach wanted her older sister Yvonne on the team, thinking she could be a true star. “My father never uttered a sound,” Rudolph remembered, as he continued rocking in his rocking chair. “[Then] my father stopped rocking in his chair and he said, ‘If Yvonne is on the basketball team, then Wilma is on your basketball team also.’’
Thanks to her father, she was finally officially part of a sports team. “My father had a very deep insight into the things that I wanted to accomplish as a little girl,” she said.
Playing ball trained her mind to set her sights on her goals, even if she wasn’t always the best on the team. But one day, the coach asked if anyone wanted to try out for the girls’ track team and instinctively, Rudolph knew she had found her calling.
“Before I realized anything, I had challenged most of the girls in my high school,” she remembered. “Then I discovered I could beat all of the girls on the track team. Then I discovered I could beat all the girls in my high school.”
The more people she beat, the more attention she got, eventually capturing the eyes of a coach at Tennessee State University, even though she was still a high school student.
But she started training with the college students. “I don’t know why I run so fast — I just run,” she said. Though she didn’t know where it was taking her, she just kept running. “Coming from this small southern town, I didn’t even know what the word Olympics meant,” she recalled.
Rudolph won her first Olympic medal at 16
Soon her speed and determination sent her to the global stage, where she won a bronze medal at the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia when she was just 16 — giving her serious bragging rights at school, where she was welcomed back as a champion.
But when her classmates passed around her medal, it gave her a newfound goal. “When I got it back, there were handprints all over it,” she wrote in the Chicago Tribune. “I took it and I started shining it up — I discovered that bronze doesn’t shine. So, I decided I’m going to try this one more time. I’m going to go for the gold.”
As she did with all her other goals, four years later, Rudolph was back on the Olympic stage, still as a teenager. And she didn’t just bring back the one gold medal she promised herself, but set a record with a trio of golds.
Running nine races in eight days, she clocked in 11.3 seconds in the 100-meter semi-final and 11.0 seconds in the finals (though a tailwind discounted it from being a world’s record), and then won the 200-meter in 24.0 seconds, having set the Olympic record in the semi-finals with 23.2 seconds. She also joined her Tennessee State teammates to a 44.5-second 400-relay final after a world record of 44.4 seconds in the semis.
“I had to pinch myself because it was a dream come true,” she wrote. “Just to make the Olympic team, to compete with all different countries to win one gold medal was a dream. And I had won three.”
Her welcome home parade and banquet were the first integrated events in Clarksville
But despite her global success — which made her a household name because the 1960 Games were the first ones televised — she stuck to her values. Returning home to Tennessee, governor Buford Ellington who was “an old-fashioned segregationist,” as ESPN reported, wanted to head up the celebrations, but Rudolph refused to attend a segregated event. Instead, her parade and banquet were the first integrated events in Clarksville.
She went on to be inducted into the Black Athletes Hall of Fame in 1973 and National Track and Field Hall of Fame the following year — and also eventually consulted for the DePauw University track team and started the Wilma Rudolph Foundation to help inspire young athletes, before she succumbed to brain cancer at the age of 54 in 1994.
After being bedridden for so much of her early life, her fast-moving legs allowed Rudolph to truly go the distance. “Those medals let me go places where I probably would not have been able to go, to the White House to meet the late President John F. Kennedy; to lavish banquets,” she recalled to the Chicago Tribune. “It was the best-of-everything lifestyle and that lifestyle was so unrealistic. It takes you a lifetime to realize that all you have to do is be yourself.”