Almost every circumstance was stacked against Wilma Rudolph from the day she was born on June 23, 1940. Her father, Ed Rudolph, had eleven children by a first marriage while his second marriage yielded eight more, of which Wilma was the fifth. At birth she weighed only four-and-a-half pounds. Her mother, Blanche, a housemaid, feared for Wilma’s survival from the outset. The family lived in tiny St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, a farming community about forty-five miles southeast of Nashville, Tennessee. Shortly after Wilma was born, the Rudolphs moved to nearby Clarksville, Tennessee, where they lived in town. Her father worked as a porter on railroad cars, and her mother cleaned houses six days a week. Older siblings helped care for the sickly baby who had come into the world prematurely.
At the age of four, Wilma was severely weakened when she contracted polio, a disease that attacks the central nervous system and often causes developmental problems in children. She survived the illness, but she lost the use of her left leg. Specialists in Nashville recommended routine massage therapy for the limb, and Mrs. Rudolph learned it and taught it to some of the older children. Thus, Wilma’s legs were massaged a number of times each day, helping her to regain strength. Rudolph’s confidence may have flagged at times in her childhood when it seemed she might spend a lifetime in leg braces or even a wheelchair. Through the efforts of her devoted family—and her own steely determination to strengthen herself—she rose from disability to Olympic glory.
Source: Notable Biographies