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Tuesday, April 24, 2001
Women of Wide World: Wilma Rudolph

ABC Sports Online

With the Cold War escalating to new heights, the United States sent its track team to Moscow.

Wilma Rudolph
Wilma Rudolph won three gold medals at the 1960 Olympics in Rome.
Wilma Rudolph had already proven she was the fastest woman in the world when she won gold medals in the 100 and 200-meter races and anchored the United States' 4x100 meter relay team at the Rome Olympics in 1960.

In 1961, the 5-foot-11, 130-pound sprinter led the U.S. track teams into Lenin Stadium for a meet against the Soviet team on Wide World of Sports. In front of a crowd of 70,000, Rudolph equaled her world record in the 100-meters and anchored the U.S. to a world record time in the 4x100 meter relay.

Rudolph was born prematurely June 23, 1940 in St. Bethlehem, Tenn., and weighed just 4 1/2 pounds. The bulk of her childhood was spent in bed. She suffered from double pneumonia, scarlet fever and later she contracted polio. After losing the use of her left leg, she was fitted with metal leg braces when she was 6.

Rudolph grew up in a poor family, the 20th of her father Ed's 22 children (from two marriages). Her brothers and sisters took turns massaging her crippled leg every day. Once a week, her mother Blanche, a domestic worker, drove her 90 miles roundtrip to a Nashville hospital for therapy.

Years of treatment and a determination to be a "normal kid" worked. Despite whooping cough, measles and chicken pox, Rudolph was out of her leg braces at age nine and soon became a basketball star. Rudolph became an all-state player, setting a state record of 49 points in one game. Then Ed Temple came calling, looking for a sprinter for his Tennessee State track team.

The newspapers called her "The Black Pearl" and "The Black Gazelle." After the Olympics, when the team competed in Greece, England, Holland and Germany, it was the charming, beautiful Rudolph fans wanted to watch perform.

She did more than promote her country. In her soft-spoken, gracious manner, she paved the way for African-American athletes, both men and women, who came later.