NASHVILLE, Tenn., Nov. 12 -- Wilma Rudolph, the first American woman to win three track and field gold medals at one Olympic games, died of cancer Saturday at her home. She was 54.
Rudolph, who overcame pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio as a child to become a premier athlete, became ill at a speaking engagement in July and was later diagnosed with cancer. Rudolph's achievement in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome solidified her place in history as one of the greatest athletes in track and field. She was also cited as opening the door to other female and black athletes. Rudolph won the gold medal in the 100-meters, 200-meters and the 400- meter relay in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Rudolph set a world record in the 100-meters in a wind-aided time of 11.0 seconds, after equalling the world record of 11.3 seconds in the semifinals. She captured the gold in the 200-meters in 24.0 seconds after having set the Olympic record of 23.2 seconds in her opening heat. Rudolph also combined with Tennessee State teammates Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams and Barbara Jones to win the 400-meter relay in 44.5 seconds after the team set a world record of 44.4 seconds in the semifinals. Rudolph, the 20th of 22 children, was told by doctors as a child that she would never walk, much less run. She had double pneumonia followed by scarlet fever at the age of 4 and contracted a mild case of polio at the age of 9. As a result of the polio, Rudolph was forced to wear a brace on her left leg, and doctors predicted she would never be able to run.