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Wilma Rudolph was born with the odds stacked against her. She was born premature into a large family at a time when African-American babies were denied access to the best doctors and hospitals. As a child, she was sick with a long list of diseases including pneumonia and scarlet fever, which left her left leg partially deformed.
Despite all of these obstacles, Wilma Rudolph grew up to achieve a list of accomplishments longer than the list of her childhood ailments.
Her family helped her by massaging her legs and driving her to therapy. Their encouragement paid off, because at age nine, young Wilma shocked everyone by taking off her braces and walking. By age 11, she was playing basketball at school, where her coach gave her the nickname "Skeeter" because, as he said, "you're little and fast and always in my way." She was a basketball star, who set the state record for the most points scored in a high school game.
When the track coach at Tennessee State University saw Wilma play basketball, he knew he wanted her to run for his team. He became her mentor, her teacher and guide. As a high school student, she never lost a track meet. Wilma began attending college practices while still in high school. When she was just 16, she competed in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia and her team won the bronze medal in the 4x100-meter relay.
Wilma continued to train, and four years later, the Olympics were held again, and Wilma was the star in Rome, Italy. She became the first American woman to win three gold medals in one Olympics, winning the 100- and 200-meter races and the 4x100-meter relay. She was so fast, people used to say that if you blinked, you would miss her.
After the Olympics, Wilma was an international star. Fans from around the world wanted to watch this elegant sprinter. She was mobbed by crowds in Greece, England, the Netherlands and Germany.
When she went home to Tennessee, the governor wanted to have a victory parade for her, but Wilma said she would not attend unless blacks and whites were able to go together. Her parade was the first integrated event held in her hometown of Clarksville.
For the rest of her life, Wilma continued to promote athletics. She created the Wilma Rudolph Foundation to help young athletes, worked as a track coach at DePauw University in Indiana and served as a goodwill ambassador to West Africa. She was voted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame and the Black Athletes Hall of Fame. A television movie was made about her life in 1977.
Wilma died of brain cancer in 1994 at the age of 54. Fans and friends around the world remember not just her amazing speed, but also her kindness, generosity and grace.
June 23, 1940 in Bethlehem, Tennessee
November 12, 1994 in Brentwood, Tennessee
To be healthy like everyone else
Burt High School in Clarksville, Tennessee and Tennessee State University
Overcoming great odds to accomplish great things
Esther De Berdt Reed
Mary Jane McLeod Bethune
Anne Sullivan Macy
Booker T. Washington
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Theodor Seuss Geisel
Elwyn Brooks White