IT WAS A windy November morning in 1972 when Larry Colbert finally walked out of Freedmen's Hospital. His knees were unsteady, but that was understandable. For two months he'd been in traction with an injured spine.
The doctors had wanted to operate to repair the slipped disc. But with no guarantee that he'd have full mobility after surgery. Colbert, then 35, refused. He returned to his family, friends and job with the doctors' warning: "A relapse means an operation."
Two weeks later, the relapse ocurred. The pain was excruciating but Colbert told no one about it. Instead, he quietly forced himself into a new regimen to help ease the spasms. He started to run.
Last week, Colbert was among several thousand athletes, all 40-years or older, who traveled from 50 countries around the globe to Gothenburg, Sweden, for the Second World Masters Olympic Games.
The man who started his own running therapy program five years ago finished fourth in the 400-meters (51.5), fourth in the 200-meters (23.0), ninth in the 100-meters (11.4) and anchored the American 400-meter relay team to a new U.S. record (3.29.0).
"The dream that I gave up on when I was a kid has come true," said the Glen Arden resident, whose tightly muscled boty looks like it belongs to a man 20 years younger. "I was the next oldest sot of nine children and there was never any time to do sports. I remember watching tapes of Jesse Owens in the Olympics on TV and thinking that I was going to be like him. But my high school - Fairmont Heights - was 10 miles away and since I had to ride the bus, I couldn't ever stay after school for practices. The coaches wouldn't ever give you a second look if you didn't make practice."
So Colbert put aside thoughts of competing in athletics and worked at part-time jobs to help his family. On one of those jobs, as a stable worker at a race track, he sustained the injury that ultimately made him a runner.
"I was bending down to put some hay in a bucket and one of the horses somehow tripped and fell right on my back" he said. "I could barely walk after that for a week but it seemed to get better on its own and I never had it treated. That's where my back problems began. But it didn't really hit me again until 1972."
The running program Colbert undertook after leaving the hospital had to be geared to his work schedule as a nutritionist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Every lunch break, he'd jog a mile.By the end of the winter, he was up to two miles. By mid-spring, he was pushing three.
"It got so three miles was making me late for work so I tried to run faster. Soon I could do three miles in 18 minutes or so, have time for a shower and still be back in time.
"One day when I was running, this fellow came over to me and asked whom I ran for. I said that I just ran for my health. He couldn't believe it and said that I should be competing. He said there were these things called all-comers meets and that I should give them a try. That's what I did."
Colbert ran in his first meet that weekend. Never having run competitively, and without anyone to advise him, he showed up in his gray sweats and basketball sneakers and proceded to run every event from the 100 to the two-mile.
"I thought I was going to die," he said. "What a relief it was when someone told me that you're just supposed to pick two or three events to run in."
By August, Colbert was catching runners who had beaten him earlier and in the last meet of the summer he won the 106, the 220 and the 440-yard dashes and was awarded the all-comers, outstanding performer award. Then a friend introduced him to Stan Mullins, cross country and track coach at H.D. Woodson High.
"The first time I ever saw Larry run, he was winning on sheer determination and will power," said Mullins. "I had just started my Club East track team and I asked him to run with us. He came by the next week and we went right to work. After a few weeks of strengthening up his stomach muscles and ironing out his arm motion, he started to come around. If Larry had received this training as a kid, there's no doubt in my mind that he would have been a world class sprinter."
In addition to working with Club East, Colbert was invited by Mullins to run with his high school cross country team. The experience yielded such positive results that Colbert also practiced with the indoor track team in the spring.
"By this time, I was usually jogging 13 miles to work," said Colbert. "I'd have a friend drive my car over so when I got off at 5 o'clock, I could drive straight out to Woodson for track practice.
"And those practices were killers - 20220s back-to-back, 10110s in a row with no rest in between. When I was ready to drive home at 8, I could barely see, let alone stand up. But I always made it just as big a part of my schedule to spend time with my wife and three kids when I got home. It's really one of the only times we'd see each other. But they understood. I would never have none this if they didn't."
That summer, Colbert packed up his wife, parents and aunt and drove to his first Masters meet - the Philadelphia East Coast Invitational. After observing the sea of multicolored uniforms and the experienced runners wearing them, he nearly scratched out. But he didn't and by the end of the meet, Colbert had bronze medals in the 100,200 and 440.
Then the invitations from other Masters meets began to pour in - Richmond. Raleigh, Quantico, New York City. Confidence began to build and by 1974 he was winning almost every race he entered, with times that included a 10 flat 100-yard dash, a 21.2 second 220 and a 49.5 split on a mile relay team, all at age 38.
At the advice of Mullins, Colbert soon began to enter AAU open meets, racing against the likes of Dr. Delano Meriwether, Maurice Peoples, Dennis Walker. This top flight competition forced Colbert to continue to push as hard as he could. He then topped off 1975 with a trip to the First Masters Olympics in Toronto. Running in a sub-Masters class for under 40s, Colbert nabbed third in the 100 meters (11.2) and fourth in the 220 (22.5).
But the big test came this July, when Colbert, now 40, traveled to Sweden for his first official Masters Olympics.
But Colbert almost didn't go. A week before the chartered jet was to leave for Gothenberg, his younger brother was killed. Family members and close friends prevailed to Colbert to make the trip anyway.
"I can't describe my feelings when I got off the plane," he recalled. "It was just like the Olympics. The flags, the parades and everybody talking a different language. I couldn't believe I was part of this. My brother's death really hit me the night before I was going to run. I hardly slept.
"But I knew I had to run. This was my chance. My goal had always been to do something big, something for my parents and for my own family. This was my chance to be somebody."
The man who started running at age 35 to cure his back came home as one of the top Masters sprinters in the world.
"He didn't get the gold this time but you can never count Larry out," said Mullins. There's something that drives him; something that maybe he missed as a kid that he finally has. His wife, Marleen, knows that. She supports him all the way. All of my runners and I, we just admire him."