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'My She-ro': Wilma Rudolph : Track and field: The 20th of 22 children, she survived childhood illnesses and went on to become the first female to win three Gold medals at one Olympics.

November 20, 1994|MICHAEL KNISLEY | THE SPORTING NEWS

Anita DeFrantz was 8 years old when Wilma Rudolph sprinted to three gold medals at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. The bond was automatic.

"She was my she-ro, absolutely," says DeFrantz, who became an Olympic medalist herself (bronze in rowing) 16 years later in Montreal. "We knew her story. I grew up in the Midwest, and she was someone that I certainly admired. . . . There she was, with the whole world focused on her. And wasn't it wonderful. Here was someone who looked like me, and she'd done something that everybody celebrated."

Rudolph, the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at one Olympics, lost her battle with brain cancer last week in Nashville, Tenn. It was the end to a remarkable life. Rudolph was born in 1940 in Clarksville, Tenn., the 20th of 22 children, and survived childhood bouts with double pneumonia, scarlet fever and a mild form of polio. Until she was nine, Rudolph walked only with the help of an unwieldy brace on her left leg.

But by the time she enrolled at Tennessee State and joined Ed Temple's famed Tigerbelles track team, she was one of the fastest women in the world. She made the Olympic team that competed in Melbourne in 1956 and ran the third leg on the bronze-medal-winning U.S. 400-meter relay team. Then, four years later in Rome, she won the 100 meters in a wind-aided 11.0 seconds and the 200 meters in 24.0 (after an opening-heat time of 23.2), and anchored the 400-meter relay team that set a world record of 44.4 seconds in the semifinals and won the gold medal in 44.5.

"She was one of the greatest sprinters of all time," says Dr. LeRoy Walker, the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee. "I sometimes think what it would have been like--and I say the same thing about Jesse Owens--if they (competed) on the facilities we have today: the synthetic surfaces, the great starting blocks, the equipment, the shoes. What would it have been like if Wilma had been in those circumstances rather than on the cinder tracks? I wonder what her times would have been today."

When she left competition, Rudolph served as a goodwill ambassador for the United States to French West Africa in the early 1960s and founded the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a non-profit organization devoted to teaching youngsters that they can overcome obstacles as she did.

She was 54 when cancer claimed her last weekend.

"I was talking to (former Olympic long jumper) Ralph Boston last night, and we were shaking our heads as to why she'd decided she could smoke and beat the odds there," said DeFrantz, now one of two U.S. members on the International Olympic Committee. "We came to the conclusion it was because we all knew she was immortal. And maybe that's her legacy. She is immortal. We'll know about Wilma Rudolph forever."

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