At the 1960 Rome Olympics, Wilma Rudolph, a polio survivor, became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympic Games. More than 80,000 spectators watched the 5-foot-11, 130 pound athlete 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 she 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 of 44.5 seconds.
Tough Beginnings with No Vaccines
Rudolph was born in 1940 to a father who was a railway porter and a mother who was a maid. She was the 20th of her father’s 22 children (from two marriages). Immunizations were not available during her childhood, and 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 foot.
Recovery from Polio
Rudolph was faster than everyone else in the world, even though she had many of her nerves destroyed permanently by polio, and therefore had fewer nerves to drive her muscles. Every muscle in your body contains hundreds of thousands of fibers like a rope made up of many threads. Each muscle fiber is innervated by a single nerve. The polio virus gets into nerves to permanently destroy them, causing each muscle fiber innervated by a destroyed nerve to be paralyzed, so the person loses function of those muscle fibers.
After several months, many people infected with polio start to regain strength in some of the affected muscles, but 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 can regain strength only 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 Rudolph to be faster than everyone else in the world after having being infected with polio means that she had an incredible recovery, with lots of hard work in physical therapy and training. She beat the entire world in her sport with fewer muscle-motor nerves than everyone else. Please note that these videos containing Olympic film footage will say “not available,” but you can watch them by clicking on the “Watch On YouTube” link.
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 with a hoop in her yard. At Burt High School, she was by far the best female basketball player. 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.
To stay in shape during the basketball off season, she ran track at her high school. Fortunately for her, she lived near Tennessee State University 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. When Ed Temple saw Rudolph run, he decided that she was the best runner he had ever seen.
Track Training with Coach Ed Temple
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 100m relay in the 1956 Melbourne Olympic Games.
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. All four members of that U.S. gold-medal winning 400-meter relay team were from her track and field team at Tennessee State. Rudolph continued to run for two more years and retired from track competition after winning two races at the U.S.–Soviet meet.
Rudolph received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education, and in 1963, she married her high school sweetheart, Robert Eldridge. She had four children with him and they divorced 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 had starred in basketball and 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.
Polio in the 1940s compared to COVID-19 in 2020
Every summer from 1916 to the 1950s, epidemics of the polio virus infected thousands of people in the U.S. Some died at the time of the infection, some were permanently paralyzed, and a much larger number recovered but died prematurely many years later from “post-polio syndrome” in which the muscles affected by the original polio infection become weak again, and they often died of heart failure. You don’t see polio much in North America today because of the work on polio vaccines by Jonas Salk, Albert Sabin, and Joseph Melnick. Since the late 1950s, children in the U.S. have been vaccinated against polio as a routine part of their health care.
We can expect the COVID-19 pandemic to continue until about 80 percent of the U.S. population is immunized with a vaccine or becomes immune after having COVID-19. The reason this coronavirus is killing so many people is because it had never infected humans until 2019. Virtually 100 percent of the human population will become infected with the virus that causes COVID-19 when they are exposed. To stop the pandemic, we need “herd immunity” where there are enough people who are protected by their own immunity that the virus is no longer circulating everywhere you go. That can only be accomplished with a vaccine, because it would take many years for enough people to suffer COVID-19 to reach a state of herd immunity. The polio virus devastated the U.S. for more than 40 years. Even if you think that you do not need the vaccine, I believe that you should get one as a gesture of good will towards your neighbors.
Many years after a person appears to have recovered from polio, and their paralyzed muscles have been 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, and like everyone else, people who have recovered from polio will lose nerves as they age. However, when they lose a single nerve, they also 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, often becoming completely disabled.
As with Post-Polio Syndrome, the CDC notes that COVID-19 symptoms can sometimes persist for months, and the virus can damage the lungs, heart and brain, which increases the risk of long-term health problems (CDC website, September 16, 2020). Heart damage may also explain some frequently reported long-term symptoms of COVID-19 such as shortness of breath, chest pain, and heart palpitations.
Wilma Rudolph’s Death and Legacy
In July 1994, Rudolph was diagnosed with a brain tumor and throat cancer. On November 12, 1994, 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, as were the indoor track and a dormitory at Tennessee State University. She was inducted into:
• Black Sports Hall of Fame (1973)
• U.S. National Track and Field Hall of Fame (1974)
• U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame (1983)
• National Women’s Hall of Fame (1994)
• National Black Sports and Entertainment Hall of Fame (2001)
In 2000, Sports Illustrated named Wilma Rudolph number one of the 50 Greatest Tennessee Sports Figures. ESPN listed her as one of the twentieth century’s greatest athletes. In 2004, the United States Postal Service issued a Wilma Rudolph postage stamp.
June 23, 1940 – November 12, 1994