She was the fastest woman in the world, but perhaps her greatest accomplishment was simply running at all. When Wilma Rudolph was a child, she was bed-ridden by a barrage of ailments— including pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio—and struggled to walk without orthopedic shoes. But by 1956, after intensive physical therapy, she was an Olympic medalist at age 16, snagging a bronze in the 4 x 100 relay in Melbourne. Rudolph’s transcendent performance came in Rome four years later, where she became the first American woman to win three track-and-field medals in a single Games: in the 100- and 200-meter dashes, and in the 4 x 100 relay, in which she served as the squad’s anchor. The woman the Italian press dubbed “The Black Pearl” was so imperturbable she sometimes fell asleep between her semifinal and final heats. A member of the Black Athletes Hall of Fame and the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Rudolph died of cancer in 1994.
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