By Susan Reed
November 28, 1994 12:00 PM

AS THE SHY, SLENDER RUNNER from rural Tennessee took the baton in the anchor leg of the women’s 4xl00-meter relay at the 1960 Rome Olympics, she was in fourth place. But once Wilma Rudolph found her rhythm in the long, graceful strides that were her signature, she came surging to the front like a gazelle. It was another gold medal for the U.S.—and an astonishing record for Rudolph. With earlier victories in the 100 and 200 meters, she became the first American woman to win three gold medals in a single Olympics. And she was only 20 years old.

It was to be Rudolph’s most glorious triumph. The greatest woman sprinter in history, who died Nov. 12 of brain cancer at the age of 54, would need no others. She was presented with the James E. Sullivan award in 1961 as America’s finest amateur athlete and retired the following year, satisfied with her record.

Rudolph’s life story—made into the TV movie Wilma in 1977—needed little dramatic embellishment. She was raised in Clarksville, Tenn., the 20th of 22 children reared by Eddie Rudolph, a railroad porter, and his second wife, Blanche, a domestic worker. By 4, Rudolph had been stricken with double pneumonia, scarlet fever and finally polio, leaving her left leg withered and paralyzed. Doctors said she would never walk again, but her mother and siblings would hear none of it. They massaged her leg up to four times a day and drove her each week to a Nashville hospital for special heat treatments. “With all the love and care my family gave me, I couldn’t help but get better,” Rudolph said later.

How much better, few could have imagined. She was fitted with a leg brace, which, several years later, she exchanged for a high-topped orthopedic support shoe. By age 13, Rudolph, fully recovered, was a star on the Burt High School basketball team, traveling to the state championships. One of the referees, Tennessee State University track coach Edward Temple, was so impressed by her that he invited her to his summer track camp. Two years later, the scrawny 16-year-old won a spot on the 1956 U.S. Olympic track-and-field team and returned home from Melbourne with a bronze medal in the 4×100. Rudolph enrolled at Tennessee State, where she joined the legendary Tigerbelles track team, which has produced 40 women Olympians.

By 1962, Rudolph had won all there was to win. She earned a teaching degree at Tennessee State and, in the years that followed, worked as coach, teacher, cohost for an NBC radio show and goodwill ambassador to West Africa. In 1981, Rudolph, who was married twice and had four children, founded the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, a nonprofit group dedicated to helping disabled children. “All of us knew she was born to do more in the world than physically run on the track,” says Tigerbelle and Olympic teammate Isabelle Daniels Holston. “She was born to inspire, to love and to give. She did, not only to the people of America but to the world.”