In 1960, one runner captivated the world at the Summer Olympics in Rome. She was La Gazzella Negra, the "Black Gazelle," the fastest woman on earth – she was Wilma Rudolph.
In this on Sept. 5, 1960 file photo, track and field runners Dorothy Hyman of Great Brittain, left, Wilma Rudolph of the U.S., center, and J. Heine of West Germany pose after the 200 meter race at the XVI Summer Olympic Games in Rome. They were the Summer Games that ushered in the Olympics as we know them today. (AP Photo/File)
Rudolph won three gold medals, in the 100m, 200m, and 4 x 100m relay, becoming the first woman to take three golds in track and field at one Olympics. In the 200m, she set an Olympic record and, along with her teammates, she set a world record in the relay. Her accomplishments are awesome… especially when you consider the illness and injury she had to overcome.
As a young child, Rudolph contracted polio. The disease twisted her leg, leaving her in a brace until she was nine years old and in special shoes for two more years after that. When the brace and shoes finally came off, Rudolph wanted to be like the other kids at school… and she began to run. She joined her school's basketball team and was soon discovered by Tennessee State track coach Ernie Temple, who knew a natural athlete when he saw one. He recruited her for his summer program, and she quickly advanced as a competitive runner.
Wilma Rudolph at the finish line during 50 yard dash at track meet in Madison Square Garden (Wikimedia Commons/New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection)
Rudolph went to the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, where her relay team took home the bronze. She was just 16 years old at the time, still building her athleticism. Four years later, she was at her peak and ready to win – and especially, she was ready to follow in the footsteps of her inspiration, Jesse Owens.
When Rudolph returned home to Tennessee an Olympic victor, a parade and banquet were held in her honor in her hometown of Clarksville. And it would seem Rudolph carried a bit of the Olympic spirit of unity home with her: at her request, the festivities were fully racially integrated – a first for the segregated town. La Gazzella had made history once again.
Written by Linnea Crowther