Wilma Rudolph weighed just 4.5 pounds when she was born in a small farming community in St. Bethlehem, Tennessee, in June of 1940. She was the 16th child of Ed Rudolph, and the fifth of eight children by his second wife, Blanche, who worked as a housekeeper. Her older siblings cared for her as a premature infant while her parents worked.
Wilma developed polio at age 4, ultimately surviving the disease but losing function in her left leg as a result. Her mother and older siblings learned massage therapy and massaged the leg several times daily to help Wilma regain strength in her leg. Wilma often wondered if she would spend her life in a wheelchair or leg braces but removed the braces from her legs 5 years after beginning treatment with them and walked on her own.
After that, she began to join her siblings in basketball games and races. By the age of 12, she was running, jumping and challenging neighborhood children. A high school coach agreed to coach her for a short period before school each morning, and she eventually began to play basketball in high school. She was a great basketball player who once scored 803 points in one season, setting a state record. She went on to become an Olympic gold medalist.