How Wilma Rudolph Overcame Early Health Problems to Launch a Record-Breaking Career

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.

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