Wilma Rudolph winning the 1960 Olympics 100-meter dash, Rome
In the 1960s American Runner Wilma Rudolph was considered the fastest woman in the world. She was the first American to win three gold medals for track and field in a single Olympics.
Rudolph's life began with her being born prematurely and weighing only 4.5 lbs. One of 21 brothers and sisters, Rudolph was raised in the then still segregated state of Tennessee. She had infant paralysis shortly after birth and was unable to use her legs. Incredibly, Rudolph recovered her mobility and then went on to survive whooping cough, scarlet fever, measles, chickenpox, and to retain a twisted leg from the infant paralysis as well. She spent her childhood with the physical handicap, but when one of her sisters began playing high school basketball Rudolph swore to follow in her sister's footsteps and at the age of 12 began playing basketball as well.
Eventually, the Tennessee State Track and Field coach spotted Wilma Rudolph playing for her high school basketball team and convinced her to compete in sprinting events.
At the age of 16 Rudolph earned a spot on the U.S. Track and Field Olympic team and went on to compete in the 1956 Melbourne games winning a bronze medal for the 4x100 relay. In 1960 she returned to the games, this time in Rome, and won gold medals for the 100m, 200m, and 4x100m relay. (In weather over 100 degrees F, as a quick sidenote.) Her 100m was the fastest in history with her winning in just 11 seconds. It was not credited with a world record, however, because it was considered wind aided. Her 200m time set an Olympic record at 23.2 seconds. The 4x100 relay was 44.5 seconds, a world record.
She retired from Track competition at the age of 22 and went on to earn a Bachelor's degree in Elementary Education and to teach at the elementary and high schools in her home town. She also became a National Sports Commentator on Television.
She is still considered to be one of the most successful, and most inspirational sports figures in the history of the United States.
(as a quick personal note: Wilma Rudolph was one of four people that could count as childhood heros of mine. The other three were Jesse Owens, Bill Koch, and Billy Mills.)