The Tornado Wilma Rudolph: Polio, Scarlet Fever and four Olympic Medals

Wilma Rudolph was an American sprinter from Tennessee who, at 16 was the youngest member of the American Olympic Team at the 1956 games, and at 20 became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympic Games. She was also a polio survivor.

Wilma Rudolph was born on June 23rd in 1940 in Tennessee. She was the 20th of her father’s 22 children and struggled from the start. She was born premature at a weight of just 2 kg. By the time she was 4 she had had double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio. The polio had caused her left leg and foot to become twisted, and as such she had to wear a leg brace for the next 5 years.

After five years of treatment Rudolph stunned doctors when she took off her brace and was able to walk unaided as she had regained so much strength in her leg. It was not long before she was playing basketball with her brothers, running street races with them and challenging all the boys in the neighbourhood to race her. In her sophomore year at high school she joined the basketball team, setting a state record by scoring 803 points over 25 games. She was spotted by Ed Temple, the coach for the Tennessee State University women’s track team, and started to train with him over the holidays.

Despite being told as a child that she may have to wear a leg brace or even use a wheelchair for the rest of her life, at 15 she was instead becoming a shining star of the track. When she was just 16 Rudolph attended the 1956 US Olympic track and field team trials in Seattle, Washington, and qualified to compete in the 200 meter individual event at the Summer Olympics of that year in Melbourne Australia. She was the youngest member of the U.S. team at the time, and whilst she was defeated in the 200 meter event, she helped her team win the bronze medal with in the 100 meter relay race.

This clearly gave her a fire for running as she went on to set the world record for the 200 meter dash whilst she was still a sophomore at Tennessee State in 1960. That same year she qualified for the Olympics again in the 100 meter dash. When she reached Rome she went on to win gold in the 100 meter dash, the 200 meters and the 4 x 100 meter relay event. She was not only the first American woman to win three gold medals in one games, but was the first American woman to win a gold in the 100 meter dash since 1936. Her victories during these games earned her many nicknames, such as “The Tornado, the fastest woman on earth”, “La Gazella Nera” or the Black Gazelle by the Italians, and “La Perle Noir” or the Black Pearl, by the French. it made her one of the most highly visible black women in the United States and around the world at the time. She retired from track competition at the age of 22, stating that she wanted to leave the sport whilst she was at her best.