On June 23, 1940, Ed and Blanche Rudolph’s 20th child was born prematurely, weighing only 4.5 pounds. Wilma Rudolph was a sickly baby and young child so it was not surprising when she contracted polio at age four. The disease left her without the use of her left leg, and she and her family were soon to realize that they lived in a segregated world which made getting anything from an education to medical treatment an uphill battle.
Doctors told her mother that she would never walk, but Blanche Rudolph was a fighter, and she would not give up. She found treatment at Meharry Hospital, a part of Fiske University. Treatment there allowed Wilma to walk using braces and crutches, and the doctors instructed her mother in physical therapy. Her brothers and sisters pitched in to help with the therapy, and by the age of 12, Wilma Rudolph was walking unaided.
In high school, the once sickly invalid became a basketball star, leading her team to a state championship. She was spotted by a college track coach who secured her a scholarship. At age 16, she qualified for the 1956 Olympics, winning a bronze medal in the 4x4 relay.
But it was in Rome at the 1960 Olympic Games that Wilma Rudolph made an indelible mark on the athletic world. She won three gold medals becoming the first American woman to do so. Her achievements went much farther than the Olympics as they helped break down gender barriers in track and field events around the world.
Her medals led to many awards, but she considered the greatest achievement the fact that her “Homecoming” parade in Clarksville, TN, was the first racially integrated event ever held in the town. The banquet held in her honor that night was the second.
Wilma Rudolph died in 1994 at age 54, after being diagnosed with a brain tumor. In 2004, the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp in her honor.