Wilma Rudolph overcomes infantile paralysis to become a champion in track and field

Wilma Rudolph

“My doctors told me I would never walk again. My mother told me I would. I believed my mother.”

Her basketball coach in high school called her skeeter. Because “you’re just like a skeeter. You’re little, you’re fast and you always get in the way,” he would say.

But before she was dashing around on a basketball court, Wilma Rudolph was just struggling to walk. She was born prematurely and weighed just 4.5 pounds at birth. And she was often sick. Dealing with pneumonia and scarlet fever, and then with infantile paralysis, which was caused by polio.

As a result, she lost strength in her left foot and leg and had to wear a leg brace. For two years, she and her mother traveled nearly a hundred miles for treatment at Meharry Medical College, a facility that treated African Americans. They made the trip weekly.

But by twelve years old, Wilma had recovered and was walking without the aid of a brace. And soon thereafter, she followed her older sister in to basketball. That’s how she got in to sports.

She excelled on the basketball court, setting records at her school. But a track coach convinced her to give running a shot. Which she did. And which is where stardom came quick. She made the U.S. team for the 1956 Olympics as an 89 pound, sixteen year old. There she won a bronze medal in the 4 x 100 meter relay. Four years later she was back in the Olympics. Now six feet tall and weighing 130 pounds, she won three gold medals in 1960, the first woman to win three gold medals in track and field in one Olympics, and set the world record in the 200m dash.

Looking back, she said, “I never forgot all the years when I was a girl and not able to be involved. When I ran, I felt like a butterfly. That feeling was always there.”