Recovered alcoholics often find themselves with a burning need to prove their worth to the world. Joe Walker has just set his sights higher than most.
"My main goal is to qualify for the Senior Olympics and to set three world records in my age group," explained Walker, 45, who three years ago triumphed in a 14-year battle with the bottle, thanks to the help of a Veterans Administration Hospital counselor. "Any recovered alcoholic has on his mind to prove something to other people because nobody wants to trust him. This is one of the best ways I can show people I'm together. I couldn't be running track, thinking about the Olympics, if I was drinking."
When Walker was a student at Cardozo High School in Northwest Washington, nobody would have doubted he possessed world-record potential. As a sophomore in 1948, Walker captured the national high school 60-yard dash in a time of 6.5 seconds. In that same meet in New York's Madison Square Garden, Walker teamed with Marc Boston, Lorenzo Moore and William Drummond to set a world high school record of 1:44 for the 960-yard relay.
The following year, Walker ran the 100-yard dash in 9.7, only four-tenths of a second off the world record at the time. He was also a member of Cardozo's national championship 440-yard relay quartet.
All these achievements were on dirt tracks without the benefit of starting blocks. On today's Tartan tracks with starting blocks, Walker estimates he could have run the 100 in 9.2 or 9.3.
Walker sifted through 43 college scholarship offers before deciding to attend LaSalle in Philadelphia. As a sophomore in 1952, Walker became the first sprinter ever to win the 100, 220, and 440 in the Middle Atlantic Conference championships. In 1953, Walker was named All-American on the strength of a 9.6 in the 100, which was thrid fastest in the world, and 21.0 in the 220, which was the fifth swiftest clocking.
But any hopes of international glory for the the kid from the inner city disappeared when Walker pulled a leg muscle in the 1952 Olympic trials.
"It goes through my mind all the time," said the lifetime resident of D.C., who now lives at 119 Division Ave. NE. "It was definitely a major disappointment. ONe of the reasons I'm running now is to qualify for the Masters (over-40) Olympics in Sweden."
After a stint in the Navy, Walker returned to Northeast, where a series of marital and other problems started his drinking problem. The situation gradually worsened until he lost his treasured position with the D.C. department of recreation, a job he had held for six years.
Now, in addition to his track pursuits, Walker is trying to regain his department of recreation position, so he can once again work with kids. In the meantime, he unofficially aids his life-long friend Hubert Gates, coach of the Spingarn track team.
"Overall, my goal is go back with the D.C. department of recreation and help the youth," said Walker, who will help run the D.C. Youth Games this summer. "Because of some of the past situations in my life, that is one of my main aims. A lot of these kids look up to me because of (my conquering) my problems."
After not running at all since 1957, Walker took it up two years ago. After only working out for a month, Walker went to a Potomac Valley masters meeting in Arlington and won the 100, 220, and long jump for 40 to 49-year-olds.
Walker's progress received a blow last summer when he tore cartilage in his knee in a meet in Raleigh, N.C., forcing eight months of inactivity. He no longer can run 100-yard dashes, but hopes to meet the 45-year-old world age group records for the 220 (22.3), 440 (52.4), and 880 (2.01.4).
"The thing that impressed me was the way he came back," said Raynah Adams, 40, of Northwest Washington, a running buddy who met Walker at the Raleigh meet last year. "Here was a 40-year-old man who was obviously hurting really bad and he came back. If it was me I'd probably have closed the book (on running).
Walker hopes to set at least "two of the three" records at the Potomac Valley Senior Championships June 25 in Arlington. It would be here he would make the qualifying times which would make him eligible for the Masters Olympics in Sweden in August.
Even if Walker sets his world records, even if he goes to Sweden and captures the Olympic gold metals which have escaped him up to now, Walker plans a subdued celebration.
"I know whiskey is out there. And it will always be out there," Walker said. "I just don't touch it. I go to parties where ther's alcohol - I just don't drink. (If I win), I'll just celebrate in my own way, with a Coke or whatever. It'll just be in a non-alcoholic fashion."