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Wilma Rudolph at the finish line of the 100-meter dash, during the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, photographed by Mark Kauffman

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Olympian Wilma Rudolph

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As a child, Wilma Rudolph was not the fastest kid in school. She was not the tomboy running circles around her friends. There was no inkling she was an athlete, really. Nothing would foreshadow her future as a track and field legend, let alone her record-breaking status as the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single year of the Olympic Games.

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Quite the contrary. Rudolph was born, on this day, June 23rd, prematurely. Growing up, she was stricken with double pneumonia, then scarlet fever, then polio; her left leg was paralyzed. She spent her childhood in braces and orthopedic shoes.

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That a few years later, by high school, she was playing basketball was the result of lots of family love—she received daily leg massages from her parents and siblings—and loads of internal grit and moxie. She participated in the 1956 Summer Olympics, bringing home a bronze medal in the 4 x 100-meter relay; four years later, she took the world by storm, nabbing gold medals in the relay as well as the 100- and 200-meter races—all world records. It was the first year the games were televised and she, along with fellow Olympian Muhammad Ali, became an overnight star.

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Nicknamed The Tornado, Rudolph would never compete again at that level—a choice entirely her own—and retired at the peak of her career. "I'll stick with the glory I've already won like Jesse Owens did in 1936," she explained. Once, when asked how other track stars compared to her, she replied, "I'm selfish. I think I was in a class all by myself." We can't help but agree.

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