Collins a blessing to the masters track and field community

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Bill Collins

Bill Collins runs every race like it could be his last. And in truth, every race really could be his last.
Collins, 66, blew away the competition in the 60-meter dash  in the 65-69 men’s final at the USA Track Field Masters Indoors Championships in Albuquerque, N.M. this past weekend.
It was yet another victory to add to the innumerable titles the masters track and field Hall-of-Famer has  won. His winning time of 7.79 seconds – and he did ease up near the finish line – would have made him a contender to win at least two of the younger age groups.
And Collins planned to add to his championship resume. He won his heat in the 200-meter dash prelims to move him into the Sunday, Feb. 19 finals.
Then Collins disappeared for a couple of hours.
When he returned, he told the local press, “My leg doesn’t work,” he said pointing to his upper-left thigh.
In the interim between his 200-meter prelim win early in the afternoon, and when he returned to the indoor track facility, Collins had seen a neurologist, and was told the nerves were not firing in that leg.
Collins, who planned to run the 200-meter final and the 4×200 relay with his Houston Elite teammates, was forced to withdraw.
This is the life that Collins now lives. He can’t predict with any certainty that the muscles in his legs will be working the next day, or even the next hour.
You see, Collins was dealt a pretty bad hand at age 60 when he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome. It’s an incurable, rare condition that systematically damages the nervous system causing rapid onset of muscle weakness and paralysis.
“Every morning when I wake up, I cramp up for 15 to 20 minutes. So it’s a hard start to get moving,” Collins said. “Some days the nerves work well and I can train, and sometimes they totally shut off – even midway through a race.”
In its most acute phases, Guillain-Barre Syndrome often leads to death, and Collins nearly died six years ago. He was given a 50-50 chance, he said.
“The doctors flipped a coin, and they said, ‘Bill, do you want the hemoglobin treatment for five days?'” Collins said. “The treatment killed the remaining cells in my body, and I either had to recover or not.”
It would be easy for Collins to dwell on his chronic condition. Most people are diagnosed with GBS in their early 40s, and Collins said, at age 60, he was one of the oldest people to contract the disease.
In a way, Collins’ fortunes on the track mirror the ups and downs we all experience in life. He was a teenager in 1968 when he made his first international track and field team, that after winning four New York State track and field titles.
He was an all-American college sprinter at TCU, and at age 26, made the 100-meter finals in the U.S. Olympic Trials with an opportunity to qualify for the 1976 Olympics at Montreal.  Twenty meters from the finish line – and in position to make the top three – he pulled up with a leg injury.
Still, he bounced back in 1977 taking part in the world record-breaking 400-meter relay timing 38.03 seconds. It was a record that stood for several years.
And, just months before the 1980 Olympics, Collins traveled south to Trinidad and Tobago for a race that included defending Olympic champion Hasely Crawford.
Collins won that race, and was among the favorites to win a gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
It’s every track and field athlete’s dream is to win an Olympic gold medal, but Collins, and the entire U.S. summer team, never had that chance as the United States boycotted the Olympics.
“Yeah, I think about it,” Collins said about missing the chance to medal at the Olympics. “But I’ve done everything else you can possibly do in track and field.”
Collins said that his doctors advised him that continuing to compete in track and field is doing more harm than good to his body. He sees the finish line to his career rapidly approaching, but feels fortunate that he can still set an example to other athletes.
“One thing my father taught me is that when you get up in the morning, you’ve already been blessed by God,” he said. “You have to go out and be a blessing for someone else. That’s my motto, and I try to help anybody I can.”

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