NASHVILLE, NOV. 12 -- Wilma Rudolph, who won three gold medals in track and field during the 1960 Olympics after battling childhood diseases that left her unable to walk, died today of brain cancer at her home here.

Rudolph, 54, was surrounded by family members when she died at 8:30 a.m. EST, said Dwight Lewis, a family friend. Rudolph, who had been working as a consultant and head of the Wilma Rudolph Foundation, was diagnosed with cancer last July.

"All of us recognize that this is a tremendous loss," said LeRoy Walker, president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, which is meeting here. "Wilma has been very much involved in several programs with us. ... She stayed very active."

Last Thursday at the U.S. Olympic Congress, Walker led the group in a moment of silence for Rudolph who was then gravely ill at home after being discharged from the hospital.

"It's a great loss for the Olympic movement and especially track and field," said Ollan Cassell, executive director of USA Track and Field. "She ran so effortlessly and she could go so fast. She was the greatest. And the symbol of Wilma equals that of Jesse Owens. I think she was for women what Jesse Owens was for men."

Anita DeFrantz, a member of the International Olympic Committee, said Rudolph was known throughout the world. "She was my 'she-ro,' " DeFrantz said. "She was a conqueror. She didn't fight. She won. ... She touched a lot of people. She reached a lot of people as a woman who had overcome extraordinary obstacles and yet was willing to be a team player in a sport which seems to be more individual. She still ran on the relays and still gave. She coached. She worked on behalf of children."

Walker, who coached or consulted for U.S, Olympic track teams from 1956 to 1980, said: "With Wilma, there was nothing close about any of her races. She was just absolutely dominant."

At the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Rudolph showed the world just how dominant she could be. She won the 100-meter dash in a wind-aided 11.0 seconds, after running a world record of 11.3 in the semifinals. She won the 200 meters in 24.0 seconds, after setting an Olympic record of 23.2 in her opening heat. She then combined with Tennessee State teammates Martha Hudson, Lucinda Williams and Barbara Jones to win the 400-meter relay in 44.5 seconds after she and her teammates had set a world record of 44.4 in the semifinals.

"She was one of the greatest sprinters of all time," Walker said. "With all the great things Flo-Jo {Florence Griffith-Joyner} accomplished, I sometimes think what it would have been like if -- and I say the same thing about Jesse Owens -- if they were on the facilities we have today ... the synthetic surfaces, the great starting blocks, the equipment, the shoes. What would it have been like if Wilma had been in those same circumstances rather than on the cinder tracks."

Rudolph, whose autobiography, "Wilma," became a television movie, overcame incredible difficulties as a child to become an Olympic star. According to her biography in "The Complete Book of the Olympics" by David Wallechinsky, Rudolph was born on June 23, 1940, in Clarksville, Tenn. She was the 20th of 22 children. At the age of 4, she was stricken with double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio that caused her to lose the use of her left leg. Doctors told her mother that she would never walk again. But her mother refused to give up.

After her mother learned from doctors that rubbing her legs might help, Rudolph received four leg rubs daily from her sisters, brothers and mother. Her condition improved and she started wearing a brace at age 6. Three years later, the brace was replaced with an orthopedic shoe.

Rudolph, who was unable to go to school for two years during the illnesses, then played basketball with her brothers. When she was 11, her mother came home one day to find her playing basketball barefoot.

"With all the love and care my family gave me, I couldn't help but get better," Rudolph once said in an interview.

By 16, Rudolph had become a star runner and qualified for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team. In Melbourne, she earned a bronze medal running the third leg of the 400-meter relay.

After the Olympics, she returned to Tennessee, finished high school and enrolled at Tennessee State where she was a member of the track team. She was coached there by Ed Temple, who became the women's track coach for the 1960 U.S. Olympic team.

At the 1960 Games in Rome, she became the first American woman to win three track and field gold medals at one Olympic Games. After the 1960 Olympics, Rudolph set several world records in the sprints, before retiring in 1962.

Rudolph is survived by two sons, two daughters, six sisters and two brothers.