Changed the Game: Wilma Rudolph's rise from bed rest to Olympic history

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Ryan Young
·5 min read
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Gold-medal winner Wilma Rudolph of the U.S. at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
Wilma Rudolph was never supposed to walk again. Less than a decade later, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. (AP)

"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.

Wilma Rudolph had all of the odds stacked against her from the very beginning.

Yet after overcoming polio, the scarlet fever, double pneumonia and relearning to walk, Rudolph won three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, making her the first American woman to accomplish that feat.

‘Doctors told me I would never walk again’

Rudolph was born in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, in 1940, though she was born prematurely and weighed just 4.5 pounds.

Growing up roughly 50 miles outside of Nashville in a family with 21 other siblings, things were tough — she was the 20th of 22 total children from her dad’s two marriages.

She was stuck in bed for most of her early years.

Before she turned 12, Rudolph battled the scarlet fever, double pneumonia, polio, whooping cough, the measles and chicken pox. She even lost the use of her left leg and needed bulky metal leg braces when she was 6 years old. Doctors told her and her mother that she likely would never walk again.

Her siblings — thankfully, there were plenty — were in charge of making sure she didn’t take the braces off.

"I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to get them off," she told ESPN. "But when you come from a large, wonderful family, there's always a way to achieve your goals."

Finally, after miraculously learning to walk again, Rudolph started playing sports with her siblings. She joined the basketball team at Burt High School, an all-Black school in Clarksville, and set a then-state record by dropping 49 points in a single game, per ESPN.

Naturally, that caught people’s attention — including Tennessee State track coach Ed Temple, who started inviting Rudolph to his practices while she was still in high school. Her speed was simply unmatched.

"I don't know why I run so fast," she said, via ESPN. "I just run."

‘The Black Gazelle’ dominates Olympics

Temple, who also served as the Olympic women’s track coach, helped Rudolph qualify for the team for the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia. At just 16 years old, she competed with the 4x100-meter relay team that year and won a bronze medal.

It wasn’t until four years later that Rudolph made history, and international fame, in Rome. She won three gold medals at those Olympics in Italy in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash and 4x100-meter relay. She set a world record in the relay, an Olympic record in the 200 and came just shy of a third.

Rudolph was the first woman in American history to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. The next didn’t come until 1984, when Valerie Brisco-Hooks did so in Los Angeles. Florence Griffith Joyner then matched the mark in Seoul four years later, too.

With those Games being broadcast on television, Rudolph quickly rose to international fame — and earned nicknames like “The Black Pearl” and “The Black Gazelle.”

From Sports Illustrated in 1960:

A slender 5 feet 11 inches, Wilma Rudolph can command a look of mingled graciousness and hauteur that suggests a duchess but, in a crowd that is one part Skeeter and 5,000 parts people, young men and babies will come to her in 30 seconds. Her manners are of a natural delicacy and sweetness as true as good weather. She tore up Rome, then Greece, England, Holland and Germany. In Cologne it took mounted police to keep back her admirers; in Wuppertal, police dogs. In Berlin her public stole her shoes, surrounded her bus (she boarded it in her bare feet) and beat on it with their fists to make her wave. Autograph hunters jostled her wherever she went, and she was deluged with letters, gifts, telegrams and pleas that she stay where she was or come to a dozen cities where she wasn't.

Rudolph retired from the sport two years later. She was voted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, the Women’s Sports Foundation Hall of Fame, the Black Athletes Hall of Fame and earned a spot in the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame in 1983.

She later served as the U.S. Goodwill Ambassador to French West Africa, and was the track coach at DePauw University in Indiana. She also launched the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, which focused on promoting amateur athletics.

Rudolph died of brain cancer at 54 in 1994. Though her Olympic accomplishments were extremely important to her, it was her work after the Games, and the message her medals delivered, that meant the most to her.

“The triumph can’t be had without the struggle. And I know what struggle is,” Rudolph said. “I have spent a lifetime trying to share what it has meant to be a woman first in the world of sports so that other young women have a chance to reach their dreams.”

President Kennedy chats in his White House office on April 14, 1961, with Wilma Rudolph
President Kennedy chats in his White House office on April 14, 1961, with Wilma Rudolph, winner of three gold medals in the 1960 Olympic Games. (AP/William J. Smith)

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