Wilma Rudolph was born prematurely at 4.5 lbs., the 20th of 22 siblings; her father Ed was a railway porter and her mother Blanche a maid. Rudolph contracted infantile paralysis (caused by the polio virus) at age four. She recovered, but wore a brace on her left leg and foot (which had become twisted as a result) until she was nine. She was required to wear an orthopaedic shoe for support of her foot for another two years. Her family travelled regularly from segregated Clarksville, Tennessee, to Fisk University's black medical college hospital in Nashville, Tennessee for treatments for her twisted leg. In addition, by the time she was twelve years old she had also survived bouts of polio and scarlet fever.
In 1952, 12-year-old Rudolph finally achieved her dream of shedding her handicap and becoming like other children. Her older sister was on a basketball team, and Wilma vowed to follow in her footsteps. While in high school, Rudolph was on the basketball team when she was spotted by Tennessee State track and field coach Ed Temple. Being discovered by Temple was a major break for a young athlete. The day he saw the tenth grader for the first time, he knew he had found a natural athlete. Rudolph had already gained some track experience on Burt High School's track team two years before, mostly as a way to keep busy between basketball seasons.
While attending Burt High School, Rudolph became a basketball star setting state records for scoring and leading her team to the state championship. She also joined Temple's summer program at Tennessee State and trained regularly and raced with his Tigerbelles for two years. By the time she was 16, she earned a berth on the U.S. Olympic track and field team and came home from the 1956 Melbourne Games with an Olympic bronze medal in the 4 x 100 m relay to show her high school classmates.
At the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome she won three Olympic titles: the 100 m, 200 m and the 4 x 100 m relay. As the temperature climbed toward 110 degrees, 80,000 spectators jammed the Stadio Olimpico. Rudolph ran the 100-meter dash in an impressive 11 seconds flat. However the time was not credited as a world record, because it was wind-aided. She also won the 200-meter dash in 23.2 seconds, a new Olympic record. After these wins, she was being hailed throughout the world as "the fastest woman in history". Finally, on September 11, 1960, she combined with Tennessee State teammates Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams and Barbara Jones to win the 400-meter relay in 44.5 seconds, setting a world record. Rudolph had a special, personal reason to hope for victory—to pay tribute to Jesse Owens, the celebrated American athlete who had been her inspiration, also the star of the 1936 Summer Olympics, held in Berlin, Germany.
Following post-games European tour by the American team Rudolph returned home to Clarksville. At her wishes, her homecoming parade and banquet were the first fully integrated municipal events in the city's history.
Rudolph retired from track competition in 1962 at age 22 after winning two races at a U.S.–Soviet meet.
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