At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic Games. 80,000 spectators watched the 5-foot-11, 130 pound beauty win the 100-meter dash by more than three yards in a world-record 11 seconds. In the opening heat of the 200 meter run, she broke the Olympic record in 23.2 seconds and won the final in 24.0 seconds. Running anchor in the 400-meter relay, she received the baton several yards behind the German anchor and blew by her for a team world record 44.5 seconds. All four members of that American gold-medal winning 400-meter relay team were from the college track and field team at Tennessee State.
Tough Beginning Wilma was born prematurely, weighed 4.5 lbs at birth, and was the 20th of 22 children to a father who was a railway porter and a mother who was a maid. During her childhood, she suffered from polio, scarlet fever, whooping cough and measles. The incredible performance at the Rome Olympics was done by a young woman who was paralyzed by the polio virus at age four. She had to wear a metal brace on her left leg and foot until she was nine and was left with a deformed left foot.
What Makes Her Story So Incredible Rudolph was faster than everyone else in the world, even though she had had many of her nerves destroyed permanently by polio, and therefore had fewer nerves to drive her muscles. Every muscle in your body contains thousands of fibers like a rope is made up of many threads. Each muscle fiber is innervated by a single nerve. The polio virus gets into nerves to kill them. So when a person has polio, nerves are destroyed forever, causing each muscle fiber innervated by a destroyed nerve to be paralyzed, and the person loses function of that muscle fiber.
One Nerve Grows to Innervate Many Muscle Fibers After several months, a person infected with polio starts to regain strength in some of the affected muscles. However, it is not because the nerves regenerate. Nerves damaged by polio are dead forever.
Normally, a muscle fiber is innervated by a single nerve. However, a nerve connected to one muscle fiber can grow and extend to innervate nearby muscle fibers that were previously paralyzed. A person who has had polio regains strength because a nerve that may have covered only one muscle fiber is now innervating many more muscle fibers. Thus a person recovering from polio regains strength using fewer nerves to contract her muscles because single nerves are driving many muscle fibers.
For Wilma Rudolph to be faster than everyone else in the world after having being infected with polio means that she had an incredible recovery from polio and beat the entire world with fewer muscle-motor nerves than everyone else.
Basketball Was Her First Sport Rudolph idolized an older sister who was on the high school basketball team. She tried to emulate her sister by playing basketball every day on a hoop in her yard. At Burt High School, she was by far the best female basketball player her coach, C.C. Gray, had ever seen. She was “All State” and held the state single game scoring record of 49 points. She was also the star of a team that won the state championship.
Track and Field To stay in shape during the basketball off season, she ran track at her high school. Fortunately for her, she lived near Tennessee State where Ed Temple, one of the greatest track coaches of all time, coached teams that regularly won national championships. He was a sociology professor at Tennessee State who wasn’t even paid for coaching track and field.
Once Ed Temple saw Wilma run, he decided that she was the best runner he had ever seen and he told her so. While she was still in high school, she spent her summers training with Ed Temple on Tennessee State’s dirt track that had no asphalt surface and no white lines to indicate the start and finish of the various events. At age 16 she made the U.S. Olympic track and field team and won a bronze medal in the 4 x 100 m relay in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.
Training with Ed Temple Full Time In 1957, Rudolph entered Tennessee State University on a full scholarship and worked with Ed Temple full time in preparation for her incredible performance in the 1960 Rome Olympics. She received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education. She continued to run for two more years and retired from track competition after winning two races at the U.S.–Soviet meet.
In 1963, she married her high school sweetheart, Robert Eldridge. She had four children with him and divorced him after 17 years of marriage. During her career, she was a teacher at Cobb Elementary School where she had gone to school, a coach at Burt High School where she played basketball and ran track, a sports commentator on national television, the track coach at Indiana’s DePauw University and a U.S. goodwill ambassador to French West Africa. After her divorce, she lived in Indianapolis where she hosted a local TV show.
Post Polio Syndrome Many years after a person appears to have recovered from polio, and paralyzed muscles appear to be moving again, polio survivors can start to lose muscle function and become progressively weaker to the point where they can return to the level of disability they had with polio many years earlier.
All people lose nerves with aging. Like everyone else, people who have had polio, and appear to have recovered, lose nerves with aging. However when they lose a nerve, they lose many muscle fibers because their nerves innervate many “recovered” muscle fibers. Post polio syndrome means that most people who have recovered from polio become weaker and weaker as they age.
The End and the Legacy In July 1994, Rudolph was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She also had throat cancer. On November 12, at age 54, she died at her home in Nashville.
Rudolph’s hometown of Clarksville, Tennessee has a life-size bronze statue of her. A portion of U.S. Highway 79 is named after her. In 2000, Sports Illustrated named Wilma Rudolph number one of the 50 Greatest Tennessee Sports Figures. In 2004, the United States Postal Service issued a Wilma Rudolph postage stamp.
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