Thursday, September 2, 2010

September 2, 1960: The Tornado

ROME - Wilma Rudolph was used to running through obsticals. Or as it turned out, running away from them.

As a child, she caught polio, leaving her left leg and foot twisted. While wearing a brace to correct that, she also suffered from scarlet fever, whooping cough, chicken pox, and measels. She spent much of her youth in and out of Tennessee hospitals, receiving treatment or physical therapy, and her family took turns massaging her deformed left leg back to health.

The illnesses never kept Rudolph down, never kept her from her dreams. She wanted to be as good a basketball player as her older sister, and so she became a better one. She joined the track team in high school as a way to stay in shape in basketball's offseason, and she was noticed by a college track coach. Soon, basketball was an after thought, and she was running for Tennessee State on the college track team.

And then she was running in the Olympics.

As a part of the 4x100 relay team in the 1956 Olympics, Rudolph won a bronze medal as a 16-year-old. But she was just getting started. At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, she became a worldwide sensation.

On September 2, Rudolph won her first gold medal, setting two world records on her way to the gold medal in the 100-meter dash. Her second world record, set in the final, was wind-aided, and so didn't count, but she still earned the admiration of the world. Her story of perserverence, helped by the fact that the 1960 Olympics were the first to be broadcast worldwide, made her an instant celebrity.

By the time the Olympics were over, Rudolph had three gold medals, the first American woman to do so in a single Olympics. The Italian press called her the the Black Gazelle, while the French called her the Black Pearl. In America, she was called the Tornado, and recognized as the fastest woman of all time. She was named the AP's Female Athlete of the Year in both 1960 and 61.

Rudolph retired from track and field two years later, becoming an elementary school teacher and track coach, but her exploits were never forgotten. She had a dorm named after her at Tennessee State, had a highway named after her outside Clarksville, Tennessee. And in 2000, six years after her death, Sports Illustrated named her the greatest Tennessee-born athlete. Not bad for someone whose foot once faced the wrong way.

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