Handicap Can't Keep Him Off the Track : Former Prep Record Holder Is Still Winning Medals as an Amputee

Times Staff Writer

Moments after runner Mike Parson had completed a recent workout, a curious onlooker stopped to ask him about the heavy wrapping around his leg.

"He asked me if I was wearing a knee brace and I smiled and said, 'No, that's an artificial leg,' " Parson recalls. "He had a shocked look on his face. He couldn't believe it."

It was not the first time Parson has received that reaction. But the 42-year-old runner is starting to make believers out of everybody.

The 6-4, 180-pound Temple City resident recently won one gold and two bronze medals at the 1987 U.S. Amputee Assn. National Track Championships in Nashville, Tenn. He won the 800-meter run and finished third in both the 200 and 400 meters.

He was disappointed about his times of 32 seconds in the 200, 1:16 in the 400 and 4:14 in the 800 but realized he had run a lot faster than most people could have envisioned.

Not that Parson had not found success as a runner earlier.

At Manhattan Beach's Mira Costa High School, he had been one of the top middle-distance runners in the South Bay. In 1962, Parson set the school record and won the Bay League title in the 880-yard run in 1:55.9. The following year he set the school record in the event at El Camino College in Torrance with a mark of 1:54.9.

"Track was my whole life back then," he said. "That was all I was really going (to school) for. I had serious aspirations of competing in the half-mile at the Olympics. It would have been a little down the line, but I think I could have done it."

The dreams came to a halt about a year after he was drafted into the Army to fight in Vietnam in January of 1967.

Parson had been a radio operator for about eight months and was stationed at Tay Ninh, northwest of Saigon, when the area was besieged by Viet Cong mortar fire on March 21, 1969.

"I was a radio operator on a helicopter pad," Parson remembered. "We had just moved to this landing zone and I was sleeping in a tent when the attack began. I crawled under steel culverts to get some protection and one round (of mortar) landed off to the side.

"My first thought was that my lower legs had been chopped off because of the pain, and then I looked down and saw the blood flowing from my legs. I heard the (medics) say, 'Leave the dead ones and take the most serious,' so I know I was conscious."

At first, doctors told him that he had only a broken leg. They did not mention the possibility that it would have to be amputated.

"It wasn't until later that I realized the severity of the injury," said Parson, who was transferred from a mobile Army surgical hospital to a facility in Saigon and then to a U.S. military hospital in Japan. "All I understood is that I had a broken leg, and when I first saw it it looked like something out of a horror movie. That's when I began to realize how serious it was."

After seeing the injury inadvertently during an operation in Japan, Parson went into shock and suffered through a high fever. But he says he does not remember most of the early days and weeks in the hospital because "I was heavily doped up all the way."

His first rehabilitation stop in the U.S. was Travis Air Force Base in Northern California and he was soon transferred to Ft. Lewis in Tacoma, Wash., where he underwent several operations. It was also at Ft. Lewis where he developed a bleeding ulcer, which he said was a result of the tremendous doses of aspirin he was taking.

It was at Ft. Lewis where doctors first suggested amputation. By the time Parson was transferred to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Long Beach, osteomyelitis was beginning to develop in his leg.

Shortly after treatment began at Long Beach, Parson visited a specialist at UCLA, Cameron Hall, who confirmed his worst fears. In May, 1970--more than a year after he was wounded--his leg was amputated seven inches below the knee at the Long Beach hospital.

He said his leg was sized for a prosthesis soon after the operation and he was walking with a cane within four months. "It was a fairly slow process to get used to, but I could get around," Parson said.

The mental adjustment was more difficult.

"It was very depressing when I learned I couldn't run again. Before the accident I was an active person and enjoyed running.

"For several years after (the accident) I would have dreams about running again. For years I would never watch a track meet because it was too painful to see."

Even with the injury, Parson still yearned to run again, but his attempts were awkward and painful.

"I tried many times to run again and I would hop around the track and it just wouldn't work out. It was very frustrating."

Parson approached many doctors about the prospect of running and was usually left without much encouragement. One doctor even laughed over the telephone at the suggestion, Parson said. "They said you should just drop it and find another outlet."

It wasn't until Parson visited a prosthetist in Arcadia, Timothy Bulgarelli, about two years ago that he began to feel encouraged.

"He had never had a patient run again, but he was enthusiastic about it," Parson said. "He's been very patient with me. He's willing to try anything I want to try to make it work out."

But there were other factors in Parson's way. There was his busy schedule, which included

attending Southwestern School of Law and teaching religion at the Institute of Religion for the Church of Latter-day Saints near Cal State Los Angeles. Not to mention the responsibility of raising five children with his wife, Terry, 39.

Said Parson: "I thought, 'Here I am with five children, going to law school and teaching religion and I'm trying to run again.' "

However, he regained enthusiasm after receiving a letter from the U.S. Amputee Assn. in July, 1986, about its national track meet in Nashville.

"I thought that would be great to do," Parson said. "But I hadn't run for 17 years (and hadn't run competitively for 22 years), and I didn't have a lot of time."

But he decided to try, running mostly with 13-year-old son Christopher. Parson was disappointed when he ran for the first time at Arroyo High in August, 1986, and posted 43 seconds in the 200-meter, but he improved to 38 seconds in his next workout.

"I was aware that in 1985 the winning time for a simple below-the-knee amputee was 35 seconds," he said. "But I trained for only the last three weeks in August and didn't really have the time to put into it." He also didn't have the money to attend, but that problem was solved when he received donations from sponsors.

Parson finished third in the 200 (34 seconds) and second in the 400 (88 seconds) at the September, 1986, meet, which was even more impressive considering that he had never run more than 220 yards at a time in practice.

"I was very encouraged by my performance and when I came back I tried to keep up my training a couple of days a week," he said. "But around the first of the year I got to the point where I was outrunning my kids and needed somebody to push me a little more."

That is when he heard about a 17-year-old runner from Temple City who had recently lost his arm in an industrial accident. Rick Hoang, a Vietnamese refugee, was a good runner at Temple City High.

"My wife said, 'Why don't you contact him,' " Parson said. "So I reached him and I've been running with him since January. Through the summer he has been training with me four and five days a week."

The intensive training paid off for Parson at the 1987 nationals in Nashville three weeks ago when he placed third in both the 200 and 400 meters in improved times of 32 and 76 seconds, and he won the 800 meters in 4:14.

The training also benefited Hoang, who won one bronze and four silver medals in his division.

Parson hopes that his performance will land him a berth on the U.S. team for the 1988 Para-Olympic Games next October in South Korea. He has qualified for the games, which serve as the world championship for handicapped athletes.

"I have qualified but it's a case of how many people they can bring to the meet," he said. "I won the 800 but they don't have that event at the games, so I would have to go in either the 200 or 400 and they may take only two people in those."

He plans to return to the nationals again next May and there is also the possibility of a trip to Australia with a U.S. touring team.

Parson is also optimistic about the chance for improving his running times because he has been fitted with a new prosthetic called the Flex-Foot, which weighs less and has more spring than his previous prosthetic. "Most artificial legs don't have any spring in them," he said. "But the Flex-Foot has a lot more spring action."

With an improved prosthetic and a strong attitude, Parson's running career is back on the right course.

"After not running for 17 years and not competing for 22 years, I decided it would take at least two years to get back into shape," he said. "I dropped 12 seconds (in the 400) in one year, and I think if I had been using the Flex-Foot even a month before the meet I would have improved even more. All of the good runners are using it."

His training has also benefited by using Arcadia High's track, which has an artificial surface similar to the track at the nationals in Nashville.

Parson said he needs all the help he can get because of the giant strides amputee runners are making.

"With the development of prosthetic sciences, we're on the verge of a whole new era of amputee athletes," he said. "They're now able to do things they couldn't do before, whether it's track, tennis or whatever. A lot of amputees just give up athletics after they lose a limb. I've talked to others and they say it's awkward and painful."

Fortunately, Parson has survived the awkward and painful times. He gives his family much of the credit.

"The kids have always been supportive and they run with me when they can," he said. "I couldn't have done it without Terry, particularly at the beginning because life was very difficult just getting around. I would never have made it through law school or anything without her."

Parson said he is happy with his success as a runner, although he hopes to improve even more in the future.

But for Parson the biggest satisfaction is simply running at all.

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