By the age of 20, Tennessee’s Wilma Rudolph was the fastest woman in the world. She’d won one bronze and three gold medals, including in the 100 meters at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. But for her family, the fact Rudolph could walk, let alone run, was the greatest miracle.
At her 1940 birth in the St. Bethlehem section of Clarksville, Tennessee, Rudolph, the 20th of 22 children, weighed just four and a half pounds. At the age of 4, she suffered from double pneumonia and scarlet fever. Her left leg was paralyzed.
“Her parents were not sure she would survive,” wrote The Original Fayetteville County Civic & Welfare League of Somerville, Tennessee. In her autobiography, Rudolph wrote that with so many siblings, her father pushed her to be competitive. By the age of 12, she had ditched the leg brace and was playing basketball barefoot.
As a 15-year-old, Rudolph broke her school’s basketball record, scoring 803 points in 25 games. Ed Temple, a Tennessee State University track coach took notice of Rudolph’s speed on the court and mentored her from high school to college and onto the Olympics.
When Rudolph returned from the Games in Italy, she refused to participate in a racially segregated banquet planned in her honor. The 20-year-old’s activism forced organizers to adjust, and her Olympic victory party became the first-ever integrated public event in Clarksville, Tennessee.