Among many of his friends and those in the know about Masters track and field, he’s commonly referred to as Superman, and why wouldn’t he be?
Since beginning his legendary career as the greatest Masters sprinter in history, Bill Collins has captured numerous national and world championship titles, in addition to amassing an endless list of U.S. and world age-group records.
Earlier this year, Collins once again strapped on his red cape and leapt out of a phone booth prior to setting the M65 age-group world record in the 60 meters and 200m, clocking 7.69 seconds and 24.94 respectively at the USA Masters Indoor Championships in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His 200m time also made him the first man over 65 years old to break the 25-second barrier. The remarkable Collins now owns age-group 200m world records in four age categories and has American Masters 200m records in six age-groups.
A resident of Houston, Texas, who set New York State high school 100 yard and 220 yard records, Collins was recruited by nearly 200 colleges before signing with Texas Christian University, where he earned a physical education degree and broke school records in the 100m, 200m and 440 relay.
At the 1976 Olympic Trials, he pulled a hamstring during the 100m final, which cost him a chance at making the U.S. Olympic Team. Considered a strong favorite to make the Olympic Team in 1980, Collins’s lifelong dream of competing at the Olympics was quashed when despite qualifying for the team at the Olympic Trials, the controversial U.S. boycott of the Moscow games kept him from competing.
Collins eventually put that disappointment behind him and embarked on becoming history’s most dominant Masters sprinter once he became eligible to compete in 1984. As successful as Collins has been throughout his Masters career, there was a period not long ago when his future competitive exploits were in jeopardy … and so was his life.
Early in 2011, Collins wasn’t feeling well. He felt weak; he had lost his appetite and had lost a great deal of weight. During a session at Rice University with a massage therapist who is a close friend, Collins was told that his muscles were atrophying and that he may have Guillain-Barre syndrome. A rare disorder that attacks the nervous system, GBS, if not treated in the proper manner, can cause paralysis and life-threatening complications.
“It’s probably one of the most difficult things, and if you had someone that you didn’t care for too much you wouldn’t want to wish this on them -- it is that debilitating,” Collins said. “There’s nothing you can do. From the onset, you don’t know what’s happened to you. My wife and I for nearly three weeks were going back and forth to doctors drawing blood and trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I wasn’t feeling well, my body was deteriorating and I was having tremendous headaches and tingling of my fingers and toes, and weight loss.”
Collins sought medical attention immediately and began therapy the very next day. He remained in the hospital for five days, with the thought of competing again never entering his mind as 41 pounds fell away from his already slim 160-pound frame. At his lowest point, it was estimated that 85 percent of his muscle mass had disappeared.
“Five neurologists came together from different hospitals in Houston looking for what was causing this,” Collins said. “At the time I was 60, and I was the oldest person ever to contract Guillain-Barre. Normally it ranges between (ages) 35 and 50 when it attacks individuals. From that day they gave me a choice to try to let it run its course, because I’m at a point where I can no longer walk. It has totally taken away the nervous system that sends signals to the muscles and I could not even take a step. So, I could let it run its course, where some people end up paralyzed or die from this, or I could take hemoglobin treatments for five days, that kills the remaining cells in your body and at that time you’ll either recover or you won’t. So with me, as an athlete, I went with the hemoglobin treatment.
“Through prayer and the Lord’s help, I recovered, and having my wife (Stephanie) and family members by my side pulled me through. From that point I just wanted to walk again, and for the next 30-40 days, my wife took me to a pool every day and we’d just slowly walk around the pool and my body started to recover, and then the athletic side of me kind of wanted to trigger again and say, ‘Is there a possibility that I could run again?’”
At that time, Collins was taking a great deal of medication, and at one point he quit it all cold turkey, which made him feel even better. From that point on and despite his doctor’s advice, Collins established the goal of returning to competition at the 2012 USATF Masters Indoor Championships followed by the World Masters Indoor Championships, where he continued his dominant performances. In looking back on his successful return to competition after ignoring his doctor’s advice, Collins has recently had second thoughts about his actions.
“The doctors suggested that I don’t compete for two years, and eight months later I’m competing at U.S. Nationals breaking a world record,” Collins said. “I probably came back a little bit too quick. I was able to come back and I ran really well, but I’m having some residual effects of it now. Mornings I have cramping in my lower extremities for about five to eight minutes. I’ve got to go see my doctor in about two weeks because I’m having some numbness in my right side and through my right arm, so we’re just going to see what’s going on and hopefully I’m not having some recurrence.
“After I came back from Albuquerque (2016 USATF Masters Indoor Championships), my body was kind of shutting down a little bit because each race I ran there I was setting a world record. I don’t know whether or not I can continually put forth the efforts that I’m putting on the track with my body telling me I may need to shut this down. What we have to analyze is, am I causing more damage by continuing to run?”
Collins says this time he will pay heed to whatever the doctors tell him regarding his future in track and field, and regardless of what that may be, he’s grateful for his long and incredibly successful sprinting career.
“Since 1968, I’ve been running at a high level, and with the injuries like pulled muscles and things, there hasn’t been much downtime and it has been a long, long time at a high level, and maybe that’s what it is,” Collins said. “People are telling me that I’m going to run until I’m a hundred (years old) and I’d love to. I think I’ll continually be involved someway in the sport, but I don’t know what my body is going to allow me to do a year from now – I just don’t know.”
Off the track, Collins is busy these days mentoring young athletes and he gave back to his sport in a major way by serving as one of the major influencers that brought the 2011 World Masters Athletics Championships to Sacramento, California.
While he looks forward to future involvement with the sport he loves both on and off the track, it’s the athletes that Collins has met through the years that will always keep him coming back.
“It’s people that help people, and that’s how I look at it,” Collins said. “The competitors that I compete against help me and I’m very gracious for their thoughts and their help, and for many races I help people do their personal bests, and I’m never too busy to take a moment to talk to someone or to help them better themselves.
“My closest friends have come from track and field. Once you get into it and the lifelong friends that you make are just unbelievable, and that’s why I continually do this because it’s like a reunion every year at the national championships indoors and outdoors, and especially the world championships because you see people that you haven’t seen in a year or more, and it’s just a wonderful thing.”
Contributed by Tom Surber
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