In the spring of 2011 Bill Collins rushed home from Rice University to do an internet search on his computer. The subject was as foreign to him as the name sounded – Guillain-Barre Syndrome (GBS).
Collins was developing symptoms for weeks but with no answers. This was his first clue he was given into what might be happening.
After a quick internet search the words he will always remember stood out on his home computer screen – “seek medical attention immediately.”
Collins has continued to defy logic throughout his career as a masters track and field athlete. How can a 61-year-old sprinter be in such physically superior shape and running times as fast as many high school athletes? But he now faced his greatest challenge yet.
Collins was becoming incredibly weak, had lost a large amount of weight, along with his appetite, and developed a tingling sensation in his toes. His symptoms perplexed doctors. It eventually brought him to Rice University and onto the massage table of a close family friend.
“She started massaging me and said immediately, ‘you don’t have any muscles left,’” Collins recalls. “At that moment she wrote down the name GBS. I went home to look it up and it said to seek medical attention immediately. I went in and they started running tests and I started treatment the next morning.”
Collins began therapy to work the GBS out of his system. GBS is a rare disorder that attacks the nervous system and, if not treated properly, can cause life-threatening complications and possible paralysis.
Unable to leave his hospital bed for five days, he prayed just to walk again. A lean 160 pounds to begin with, Collins shed 41 pounds through the course of his treatments and rehabilitation. He estimated 85 percent of his muscles were gone.
At that point, the thought of returning to masters track and field, where he had made so many close friends, set so many world records and won so many races, was the furthest thing from his mind. The idea of returning to the track as early as the spring of 2012 for the USA Masters Indoor Championships and World Masters Indoor Championships was laughable.
“When I looked at the results from the (2011) World Masters Outdoor Championships that I missed, and based on what the doctors had told me, I was forecasting I wouldn’t run at that level again until 2015,” he said.
But just as he did so many times before, Collins quickly began defying the odds. His recovery began slowly with no impact training and only sessions in the pool. He began to grow stronger once again and the familiar toned muscles began to reappear.
When the calendar turned to begin the new year, Collins still hadn’t been able to do any workouts on the track. The USA Masters Indoor Championships were just over two months away. Through the encouragement of his son on his rapid recovery, Collins made his first trip back to the track in early January.
“I started out very slow,” he said. “I was able to pedal around the track to run a two-minute 400m. It triggered in my mind that things were going to be okay. This outcome has been more than I ever could have hoped for.”
But he still had a long ways to get his 400m time down to around 56 seconds to be competitive in his age group. However, everything continued to fall into place.
He entered to run the M60 division in the 60m, 200m, 400m and 4x200m at the USA Masters Indoor Championships March 15-17 in Bloomington, Ind., with the goal of traveling to Jyvaskyla, Finland, for the World Masters Indoor Championships April 3-8.
After four wins at the USA Championships, three gold medals at the World Championships and a pair of world records, it is safe to say Collins had a successful return to the track.
It brought tears to his eyes when he set his age-group world record in the 60m in Bloomington.
“You don’t know how many lives you have touched until something like that happens,” he said. “Every masters athlete I knew was calling and writing and emailing. That’s what masters is all about. I have won a lot of titles, set a lot of records and won a lot of championships, but it doesn’t come close to that.
“The recovery that I had was almost unheard of. People I have talked to, some have ended up in hospice homes and some are paralyzed. I am truly blessed. To have a normal, active lifestyle and to be back on the track is amazing.”
And all seemed right with masters track and field to have Collins, who is competing at the masters level for the 21st year, back and setting records. He shows no signs of slowing down.
He will return to compete in next weekend’s Penn Relays in the 100m and the 4x100m and 4x400m relays with the Houston Elite relay teams. A regular at the Penn Relays since his high school days, Collins has won a total of 33 events at the storied competition.
Collins is still unsure how long he will continue to compete. He has been approached about racing in the M75 division at the Penn Relays, which wouldn’t happen for Collins until 2026. While he remains uncertain if he will compete for that long, few would put it past him.