Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Phil Anastasia: There's simply no holding back the 'Fast Old Guy'

Bill Collins took the baton, made the turn, and raced for home as hundreds of spectators rose to their feet in appreciation of the Fast Old Guy.

Bill Collins took the baton, made the turn, and raced for home as hundreds of spectators rose to their feet in appreciation of the Fast Old Guy.

That's one way to look at Collins. He's 61. He's fast. He's perhaps the greatest Masters athlete of all time.

Collins anchored the Houston Elite 4x100-meter relay team to victory in the Masters 60-and-older competition on Friday at the Penn Relays. He also won the 100 dash in 11.98 seconds.

But the truly inspiring thing about Collins isn't his age or speed or garage full of trophies and plaques and medals. Those only make him a remarkable athlete.

He's a remarkable person. He has defied more than time. He has raced away - somehow, some way - from the debilitating effects of a rare and often devastating disease.

"This is a great blessing," Collins said. "To be back running again, when a year ago I was worried that I would never walk again, that's just fantastic to me."

About a year ago, Collins began to feel weak. He was losing weight. He was tired. He felt tingling in his fingers and toes.

"I went back and forth with doctors for three weeks," Collins said. "Nobody could figure out what was going on."

Because his legs were sore, he arranged for a session with a massage therapist at Rice University in Houston.

"She told me all my muscle tissue was gone," Collins said.

The therapist wrote down the name of a disease: Guillain-Barre syndrome.

Collins went home and looked up the disease. He remembers one phrase on the computer screen: "Seek immediate medical attention."

"I went right to the hospital," Collins said.

He was hospitalized for five days. He underwent high-dose immunoglobulin therapy. He was confined to a wheelchair.

He didn't pray to run again. He prayed to walk again.

"I was wondering what else I could do in track now that my career was over," Collins said.

He lost 60 pounds. From a lithe 180, he was down to 120, with no muscle tone, no strength.

"I saw him in that condition and I was like, 'Wow,' " said Charles Allie, 64, a teammate of Collins' on the 4x100 relay. "It's such a blessing that he's back. I never would have believed it."

Collins started building back his strength in the pool. He finally took to the track in January. He needed more than two minutes to jog one lap.

He kept working. He got stronger. There is no cure for Guillain-Barre syndrome, an autoimmune disease that attacks the nervous system, but his exercise regimen has kept the symptoms at bay.

"I know people who were diagnosed at the same time I was that are bedridden or paralyzed," Collins said. "I know how lucky I am."

At the Masters indoor national championships in March in Bloomington, Ind., Collins won the 60, 200, and 400 meters in his age class. His time in the 60, 7.58 seconds, was a world record for athletes 60 and older.

At the world championships in Jyvaskyla, Finland in early April, Collins won three more gold medals.

"To me, the big thing is to be able to share it," Collins said. "I've heard from so many people. That's what Masters is all about - the bonds we create with people all over the world, the camaraderie, the sharing of friendship. I don't pray to win. I pray to be able to share this with others."

Collins has been coming to the Penn Relays since he was a high school student in Mount Vernon, N.Y., in 1967. He calls the meet "the crème de la crème" of track and field. He has won an astounding 35 different competitions at the carnival.

He won two more on a cool and windy Friday. In the relay, he took the baton and made the turn and raced down the track as hundreds of folks rose to their feet and likely said, "Wow, look at that Fast Old Guy."

They didn't know the half of it.