It was the summer of 1960 in Rome, Italy. At the Stadio Olimpico, the thermometre had reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit as 80,000 spectators waited anxiously for the race to start. Eight women took their mark at the start line for the 100 metre dash. The gun popped and the women took flight. The American pulled ahead and blazed to the finish in 11 seconds flat, a world record if not for the wind at her back. For the second race, the American took her place once again on the track. The spectators watched in anticipation for the 200 metre race. Once again, the American passed everyone, crossing the finish line in 23.2 seconds and breaking the Olympic record. A few days later, the American, Wilma Rudolph, along with her 3 teammates, lined up for the 4 by 100 metre relay. Baton in hand, the women who would run the first leg of the race put their feet into the blocks. The gun went off and the women burst out of the blocks. One by one, the American women blazed down the track, winning the race in 44.5 seconds and setting a world record. Wilma Rudolph, watched the American flag raise and listened to the Star Spangled Banner 3 times in Stadio Olimpico that summer. The Italians nicknamed her "La Gazzella Negra", the black gazzelle.
What makes Wilma Rudolph's story even more remarkable is her childhood. Raised by a railroad porter father and a maid mother, she was the 20th of 22 children. Because the family was poor, the mother often made her daughters' dresses out of flour sacks. Only 4.5 pounds at birth, Wilma seemed to get every disease, including scarlet fever and polio. Being black, her parents could not take her to the white hospital to be treated and her mother often had to care for her on her own. After her bout with polio, doctors told Mrs. Rudolph that Wilma would never walk again. Wilma wore a leg brace from age 6 to 9. Her mother refused to accept this news and took Wilma to a black hospital in Nashville. Wilima wore a leg brace from ages 6 to 9. Then for two years, her mother took her twice a week to the Nashville hospital for physiotherapy. Mrs. Rudolph and her other children also gave Wilma exercices at home to restore her crippled leg. At 12, Wilma started walking on her own, her leg healed. In junior high, she joined her school basketball team, but the coach did not let her play for three years. By high school, she became a starting guard, setting state records and leading them to a state championship. Wilma caught the eye of the Tennessee State track and field coach who offered her a full track scholarship.
After the 1960 Summer Olympics, Wilma flew home from Rome where a parade awaited her in Clarksville. She insisted that it be racially integrated, the first such event ever held in her hometown. She retired from track in 1962, studied at university and then took a job as a teacher at her alma mater.
Wilma Rudolph crossing finish line of women's relay at Stadio Olimpico in Rome in 1960 courtesy http://graphics8.nytimes.com.