Wilma Rudolph was born in Tennessee in 1940, the 20th of her father's 22 children (from two marriages). She was premature and was very sick as a child, first from pneumonia, then from scarlet fever, and finally from polio. She lost the use of her left leg at age 6 and began wearing metal leg braces. Wilma's early medical care was severely compromised not only by her family's poverty, but by the racial segregation of the south at the time of her birth. In the Randolph's town, there was only one black doctor and no hospital that would admit black patients.
Due to her illnesses, Wilma did not start public school until she was 7. Through determination and with extensive help from her large family, she was able to stop wearing the braces by the time she was 9 and walk without impairment by the age of 12. She then began playing basketball, though the coach of her junior high team didn't play her in a single game for three years. When she finally did get to play as a sophomore in high school, though, Wilma quickly became a state record-holding star.
Wilma received a full scholarship to Tennessee State not for her skills in basketball, but for her speed. While still in high school, Wilma began attending college track practices. Then, in 1956, at the age of 16, Wilma competed in her first Olympic Games. She ran on the U.S. 4X4 relay team and came home with a bronze medal.
At the 1960 Olympics, Wilma became a star. She was the first American woman to bring home three gold metals, for the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, and 400-meter relay. All three events set world records. She was named the United Press Athlete of the Year and the Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year. At her insistence, her victory parade was the first integrated event of its kind in her hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee.
After retiring from competitive running, Wilma returned to Clarksville, where she taught school and coached track. She moved on to coaching and teaching positions in other towns before going into broadcasting and becoming a national sports commentator. She married her high school sweetheart in 1963, with whom she had four children before divorcing. She also created the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a non-profit promoting community sports programs.
Wilma died of brain cancer in 1994, at the age of 54.