Wilma Rudolph: A trio of golds against all odds

(L to R) Britain's Dorothy Hyman (bronze), the USA's Wilma Rudolph (gold) and Germany's Jutta Heine (silver), after the Women's 200m final at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
(L to R) Britain's Dorothy Hyman (bronze), the USA's Wilma Rudolph (gold) and Germany's Jutta Heine (silver), after the Women's 200m final at the Rome 1960 Olympic Games (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The Olympic Games are full of champions, records and stories, but they’re also an incredible encyclopaedia of strange, funny, emotional and sad moments. We’ll dig some out every week to put a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. This week: Wilma Rudolph's three golds at Rome 1960.

The background

Wilma Rudolph was once told she would never be able to walk again... but she proved everyone wrong.

Rudolph's childhood wasn't easy.

Born prematurely on 23 June 1940 near Clarksville, Tennessee, she was the 20th child of 22 and fought pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio in her youth, with the later temporarily paralysing her left leg and requiring her wear a brace.

Seeking medical treatment, Rudolph's mother drove to Nashville - a 100 mile (160.9km) round-trip - every week, for two years. Back at home, family members would often take turns massaging her leg multiple times a day.

"My doctor told me I would never walk again,” Rudolph wrote in her autobiography. "My mother told me I would. I believed my mother."

Rudolph made slow progress, but stunned her doctors as she started to walk unassisted by the time she was 12.

Following in her older sisters footsteps, Rudolph decided to join the junior high school basketball team.

At the start, she didn't play a single game and sat on the bench. But Rudolph wasn't deterred, and after three years of training became a starting guard for her high school.

She excelled in the role, and eventually led her team to a state championship.

It was during her basketball ventures that she caught the eye of Ed Temple - considered a women's track and field pioneer - who was coaching the track team at Tennessee State University.

After being invited to attend a summer camp by Temple, Rudolph undertook a year of rigorous training and managed to qualify for the US Olympic Track and Field Team for the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956.

She was the youngest member of the United States team at just 16, but came away with a bronze medal in the 4x100m relay.

The finish of the 100m race at the Olympics in Rome with Wilma Rudolph, taking the gold and Dorothy Hyman, the silver and Italy's G Leone, the bronze (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)
The finish of the 100m race at the Olympics in Rome with Wilma Rudolph, taking the gold and Dorothy Hyman, the silver and Italy's G Leone, the bronze (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)

The final

However, it was four years later, at Rome 1960, where Rudolph etched her name into the history books.

The Games themselves were the first to be televised, but nobody could have predicted what they were about to witness.

In the space of eight days Rudolph would run nine races.

In the 100m semi-final, Rudolph tied the world record by clocking 11.3 seconds, before going on to win gold in the final with a time of 11.0 seconds (an illegal tailwind prevent this from becoming a world-record run).

Three days later, the 20-year-old claimed another gold medal - and an official world record - in the 200m.

But her most important race came on 8 September, 1960, in the 4x100m relay.

The team broke a world record in the semi-final and hopes were high that Team USA - consisting of Barbara Jones, Lucinda Williams, Martha Hudson and Rudolph - would win gold despite the blistering heat in Rome (43°C).

Rudolph nearly dropped the baton, but determined to win the race - to pay tribute to her inspiration Jesse Owens - she overtook the United Team of Germany to win in a close finish.

In doing so, Rudolph made history as she became the first American woman to win three track and field gold medals at a single Games.

The unbelievable story of Wilma Rudolph
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The outcome

Following her success in Rome, Rudolph was awarded a homecoming parade in her hometown of Clarksville. Despite opposition at the time, it would become the town's first racially integrated event.

The following year, Rudolph was invited to compete at various track meets including the Los Angeles Invitational, but the stand-out moment came at the Millrose Games where she became the first female to race at the meet, which had previously been an all-male track and field event.

The two-time Olympian retired in 1962 - aged just 22 - as the world record holder in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay.

She returned to Tennessee State to focus on her education, where she earned her Bachelor of Education the following year.

Rudolph was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1980, as well as the Women’s Sports Foundation Hall of Fame, Black Athletes Hall of Fame and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Hall of Fame, and a year later established the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, to further encourage community-based track and field programs as well as academic assistance and support.

In July 1994, after moving back to her home state just year years prior, Rudolph was diagnosed with brain and throat cancer.

She passed away on 12 November 1994 at the age of 54.