Wilma Rudolph, who as a child walked with the aid of a leg brace but ran to three Olympic gold medals and inspired a generation of future champions, died at her home Saturday of brain cancer. She was 54.
Rudolph overcame childhood battles with pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio to become the first U.S. female track and field athlete to win three gold medals in the same Olympics, finishing first in the 100 meters and 200 meters and running the anchor leg for the victorious 400-meter relay team in 1960 at Rome.
"She's a legend in track and field, like Jesse Owens," said Ollan Cassell, executive director of USA Track & Field. "After Jesse died, she became the icon, a symbol of what the Olympics mean to this country and this sport. This is really a sad day."
Cassell and other sports officials are in Nashville for the U.S. Olympic Congress, which opened Thursday with a request from U.S. Olympic Committee President LeRoy Walker for the 924 participants to join in a moment of silence for Rudolph.
Many said that she ranks alongside Babe Didrikson Zaharias, a double gold medalist during the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, as the United States' greatest female athlete.
"She is one of the greatest Olympic champions ever," Walker said Saturday. "But more importantly, she opened the door for many young women and girls in track and field, and we are forever indebted to her."
One of those women, Benita Fitzgerald, said that she placed a poster of Rudolph over the bed in her dormitory room while attending the University of Tennessee. Fitzgerald later won the gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
She said that she and other Olympic champions of her era, such as Florence Griffith Joyner, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Evelyn Ashford and Valerie Brisco, often discussed Rudolph's influence on their careers.
"She was the greatest influence for black women athletes that I know," said Bob Kersee, husband and coach of Joyner-Kersee, who has won three Olympic gold medals in the heptathlon and long jump. "I just hope Jackie and her achievements will be able to influence young athletes, black and white, like she did."
Joyner-Kersee called Rudolph "my idol."
"She was someone I could always talk to," Joyner-Kersee said. "She was very inspirational. She was always in my corner. If I had a problem, I could pick up the phone and call her at home. It was like talking to your sister or your mother, someone you knew for a lifetime.
"I always thought of her as being the greatest, and not only athletically. You respected her as a woman."
Born June 23, 1940, at St. Bethlehem, Tenn., Rudolph was the 20th of Blanche and Eddie Rudolph's 22 children. She was stricken with double pneumonia when she was 4, followed immediately by scarlet fever and then by a mild form of polio that caused her left leg to shrink.
"All I can remember is being ill and bedridden," Rudolph said about her early childhood.
With daily massages from her father, a railroad porter, and mother, a domestic worker, Rudolph eventually was able to walk with a cumbersome leg brace.
"With all the love and care my family gave me, I couldn't help but get better," Rudolph said.
When she was 9, the brace was replaced by a high-top shoe that allowed her more mobility.
Seven years later, she had not only become an outstanding high school basketball player in Clarksville, Tenn., once scoring a state-record 49 points in a game, she also became an Olympian, winning a bronze medal in a relay during the 1956 Games in Melbourne, Australia.
After enrolling at Tennessee State, where she was the most prominent member of Coach Ed Temple's "Tigerbelles" track team, she returned to the Olympics in 1960 as the favorite to become the first U.S. woman to win the sprint double.
At 5-feet-10, a tall and elegant runner, she accomplished that feat with exclamation points, equaling the world record of 11.3 seconds in the 100-meter semifinals and setting the Olympic record of 23.2 in the opening heat of the 200. The winning 400-meter relay team that she anchored also set a world record, winning its semifinal heat in 44.4 seconds.
"With Wilma, there was nothing close about any of her races," Walker said. "She was absolutely dominant."
In an era when track and field performers could not legally accept money for their efforts in the sport, she retired at 22--probably before her prime as an athlete--and engaged in a variety of endeavors over the next three decades.
Besides a short stint as a track coach at DePauw University in Greencastle, Ind., she was a goodwill ambassador for the United States to French West Africa in the early 1960s, co-hosted a network radio show, became a spokeswoman for Minute Maid Orange Juice and served as an administrative assistant at UCLA. She also was an executive for a Nashville bank, a Nashville hospital and a baking company in Indianapolis.
She said that her greatest accomplishment was the establishment in Indianapolis of the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a nonprofit organization devoted to teaching underprivileged children that they could overcome obstacles.
"Someone asked me if I would describe her as a fighter," said Anita DeFrantz, an International Olympic Committee member and president of the Amateur Athletic Foundation in Los Angeles. "No, I would describe her as a conqueror."
But Rudolph could not overcome the cancer that was diagnosed after she fell faint during a speech last July at Atlanta. Twice divorced, she is survived by two sons, two daughters, six sisters and two brothers.