Classic '64 Model Still Runs Strong : Mike Larrabee Won the 400 Meters in Tokyo Olympics; Now He Walks Mountains of the World

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In many ways, the living room wall of Mike Larrabee's home in Santa Maria is identical to thousands of others across the United States.

Its wood panels are adorned with numerous photographs of family and friends. There are photos from weddings, graduations and vacations which chronicle events common to many families, but there are several photos which are unique.

These photos are from the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo where Larrabee won gold medals in the 400-meter dash and the 1,600-meter relay.

Larrabee's 400 victory in 45.1 seconds was 25 years ago today, and though it he didn't realize it at the time, he would later become the answer to two track-and-field trivia questions.

He is the oldest man (30 years, 322 days) to win the 400 in the Olympics and he is the last white American to win an Olympic sprint event.

In 1965, Ventura High renamed the football and track stadium after him.

Larrabee's victory was noteworthy not only because it came in what was considered a young-man's event, and not only because it followed years of career-threatening injuries, but because he accomplished it in a bygone era of track and field.

It was an era when American athletes were paid little, if any, money for their exploits, despite the fact that meets such as the UCLA-USC dual meet in the Los Angeles Coliseum annually drew 70,000-80,000 fans in the late 1950s and early '60s.

It was an era when athletes held full-time jobs to support themselves and their families, and thus, few athletes competed past their mid-20s, let alone into their early 30s.

It was an era when steroids were something that few athletes knew much about.

"I never expected to run as long as I did," says Larrabee, who graduated from Ventura High in 1952 and from USC in '57. "It just kind of happened. I always took it meet by meet, and year by year. I never had any master plan. But anyone who knew me would tell you that I loved to play. I'm still playing.

"Track was play to me. It was fun. It was a big part of my social life. I really enjoyed running for the (Southern California) Striders. They were one of the big clubs and I had a good time with them."

Having a good time has always been a major requirement in Larrabee's life. And it is still.

His current passion is hiking and Larrabee has roamed mountains all over the world, including Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina, at 23,035 feet, the highest peak in North or South America, the Breighthorn and Weisshorn in Switzerland, Mt. Blanc in France, Mt. Whitney in California and Mt. Raineer in Washington.

Larrabee has long been master of the outrageous.

Warren Farlow, an undergraduate at USC from 1958-62 and a half-miler (best of 1 minute, 49.2 seconds) on the track team, said that Larrabee was a legend on the Southern Cal campus. Not for his athletic achievements, but for his pranks and social life.

"The guy was close to insane," says Farlow chuckling. "He was the original animal house character. He lived the college life to the fullest. He was a maniac.

"Even when he got married (1956) and started raising kids, he was still crazy as could be."

Farlow, the co-track coach at Kennedy High in Granada Hills since 1971, said he could tell Larrabee stories for hours, but recalled a few that were particularly humorous.

The first occured in what was then the white middle-class neighborhood surrounding USC. Larrabee and some of his buddies rigged up a speaker system without anyone knowing about it, then blasted the neighborhood with sound-effects records at three o'clock in the morning.

"They terrorized that neighborhood on and off for about a year," Farlow says. "It would be in the middle of the night, and suddenly, these people are startled awake by jungle noises in the middle of Los Angeles."

Another incident involved Larrabee and John Bragg, a high school buddy and frequently one of his prank partners.

Larrabee offered Bragg $20 if he would run naked down sorority row at USC. Bragg took the offer under the condition that he got to pick the day and time. After agreeing on the specifics--2 a.m. when no one was apt to be around--Larrabee distributed flyers throughout school about Bragg's upcoming run for glory.

So when time came for the big event, there were rows of cars parked on the lawns of the houses facing the street. And when Bragg made his mad dash, everyone turned on their headlights.

The third story involved Larrabee and several of his buddies in a local movie theater. After many of the patrons told them to quiet down, Larrabee and Co. dosed the entire audience with the theater fire hose, forcing them out of the building.

To make sure no one forgot about him, there were "Larrabee was here" inscriptions in newly poured cement all over the SC campus.

"He was zany, but I always liked being around him because he was so up all the time," says Bill Toomey, the 1968 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon and a former world-record holder. "He's also a people person. He really cares about them."

Underneath all the craziness was a very competitive person, according to both Farlow and Toomey, a training partner of Larrabee's from 1965-68.

"He was one of the hardest workers I've ever seen," says Farlow, who taught with Larrabee at Monroe High in Sepulveda from 1963-68. "He was very intense in workouts, but he always had a good time doing it. The guy could have been an exceptional half miler if he had wanted to."

Toomey said that Larrabee helped him develop into a great 400 runner, a decathlete who ran 45.6 in that event.

"He had a lot of street smarts about how to compete against others," Toomey says. "He taught me the intricacies of all-out 300s. He taught me that you couldn't run all-out in races if you never did in workouts."

Larrabee's young-at-heart attitude, love for the sport and work ethic were the main reasons he competed as long as he did.

For his rise to the top of the 400 world in 1964 was a long, bumpy, and often times, painful journey.

After placing fifth in the 220-yard dash at the state high school championships as a senior, Larrabee went to USC on a scholarship with high school bests of 21.5 in the 220 and 51.2 in the 440.

"I got the scholarship for the 200 time," he said. "I thought anyone who ran the 400 seriously was crazy. That was a crazy man's event."

Perhaps that's why he concentrated on it once he got to college.

After running 49.0 as a freshman, he improved to 47.8 as a sophomore, 46.5 as a junior and 46.2 as a senior, placing eighth in the Olympic Trials. However, he never placed higher than fifth in the NCAA championships (1954).

One of the favorites in both 1955 and '56, Larrabee twice false started in his semifinal and was disqualified as a junior, and was sick with the flu as a senior.

Running for the Southern California Striders in 1957, Larrabee improved his time to 46.0 and was ranked second in the world in the 400, but he tore his right hamstring muscle during a 200 race in Salt Lake City midway through the season.

Dr. Robert Kerlan examined Larrabee's leg and told him that his career was over, which didn't come as earth-shattering news to the patient.

"I thought maybe it was time to start settling down," says Larrabee, 55. "After all, I was married and working towards my Master's degree."

The injury improved dramatically by the end of the year, however, and Larrabee was running again in 1958 and ranked sixth in the world in 1959.

Undefeated in the early part of the Olympic year of 1960, Larrabee ruptured his right Achilles' tendon in a workout a few days after winning the prestigious Compton Invitational in the Coliseum.

Though the injury did not end his career--as Kerlan again told him it would--Larrabee missed the rest of the season and thought about what might have been as the United States' Otis Davis--third behind Larrabee at the Coliseum--defeated Carl Kaufmann of West Germany in the 400 at the Olympics in Rome that September.

"That injury was hard to deal with," Larrabee says. "That was, without a doubt, the greatest disappointment of my athletic career. I took me a long time to get over it."

The Achilles' continued to hamper Larrabee for the next three seasons, but in the fall of 1963, it started to improve as he worked harder than ever.

Farlow remembered 10-mile training runs with Larrabee around the Veterans Hospital near Monroe.

"He had never done that before," Farlow says. "So when 1964 rolled around, he was strong as an ox."

Larrabee need every bit of his strength to overcome a severe case of pancreatitis--an inflamation of the pancreas--in March and April of the Olympic year.

There were two Olympic Trials in 1964, making it a unique year in American track. According to the U.S. Olympic Committee, both meets were equally important, but Larrabee said that wasn't so.

"If you won the first race, but didn't finish in the top three in the second, you weren't going to be on the team," Larrabee says. "But if you finished in the top three in the second meet, you were going to Tokyo."

With that in mind, Larrabee--running with a 102-degree temperature--finished sixth (46.6) in the first meet in Randalls Island, New York, on July 4, then tied the world record of 44.9 in winning the second meet at the Coliseum on September 12.

Larrabee's performance was outstanding, not only for its quality, but for the way he ran it.

In an event where most of the world's elite frequently came through the first 200 meters in under 22 seconds and then slowed to 23 or 24 in the final 200, Larrabee ran an even pace. His splits at the trials were 22.5 and 22.4.

"Until 1964, I used to scream out the first 200 just like everyone else," Larrabee says. "But my Achilles couldn't handle it any more. In order to run the first half of the race fast, you've got to smash the ground hard. You've got to drive and I couldn't drive. I was more like a locomotive that built up speed as it went along."

Though he was the favorite heading into the Games, Larrabee told reporters that there were five other competitors--U.S. teammates Ulis Williams and Ollan Cassell, Wendell Mottley of Trinidad and Tobago, Robbie Brightwell of Great Britain and Andrzej Badenski of Poland--who were capable of winning the gold medal.

Except for Cassell, who was eliminated in the semifinals, all of the medal contenders qualified for the final.

After running just fast enough to win his heat (46.8), quarterfinal (46.5) and semifinal (46.0), Larrabee was very confident of his chances in the final. And when he was informed of the lane assignments--he was in five, with Brightwell in six, Mottley in seven, Williams in eight and the fast-starting Badenski in the tight confines of the inside lane--he figured he was in even better shape.

"It was as if I had hand-picked the lanes myself," Larrabee says. "I couldn't have asked for a better lane draw."

The race went exactly how Larrabee thought it would. Mottley , Badenski, Williams and Brightwell went out fast, Mottley leading at the 200 in 21.6, while Larrabee was sixth in 22.5. Fifth at the 300 mark, Larrabee proceeded to swoop past those in front of him in the final straight, passing Mottley with 10 meters left to win in 45.1.

"I would have been shocked if I hadn't won," he says. "First of all, Mottley had run 45.7, 45.8 and 45.7 in his preceding races, while I had run just fast enough to win. On top of that, Mottley had pulled a hamstring muscle during the indoor season and hadn't run much outdoors. . . . Plus I always figured at that time that if I was within 10 meters of the leaders coming off the turn, I would win."

The win capped a No. 1-ranked season for Larrabee and was the pinnacle in a athletic career that would last another four years.

"It meant a lot to me inside because of what happened in '56--when I had the flu--and in '60--when I injured my Achilles," Larrabee says. "It was something that I had been shooting for for a long time. But I never did it for the glory. In fact I ditched a parade in Fillmore for me after the Games."

Though he enjoyed teaching in the San Fernando Valley, Larrabee moved with his wife Margaret, daughters Tracie and Lisa, and son Mike Jr., to Santa Maria in 1968 to take over his mother's beer distributorship with his brother Terry.

"I miss teaching," he says. "But the financial rewards in the beer business were substantially greater."

The business also allowed him more leisure time, much of which he spent hiking and backpacking.

Always looking to get the maximum enjoyment out of any endeavor, Larrabee started raising Llamas--he has 18 of them--in 1985 to use as pack animals.

"I was tired of making myself a beast of burden by hiking with a 50- or 60-pound pack on my back," Larrabee says. "And Llamas are a much better pack animal than a horse or mule in the mountains. They're smaller and they're much more sure-footed."

Larrabee took great pride in his ascent of Aconcagua with college chum Bragg, but he doesn't plan any more four-week long hiking excursions.

"Aconcagua was a grind," he says. "There's too many fun 13,000 and 14,000-foot mountains around here that you can climb in a day or two."

Always looking for a new thrill, Larrabee recently added rock climbing to his repertoire of outdoor activities.

"I figure it will help me in hiking too," he says. "I've been in some pretty tricky spots where knowing how to climb rocks would have helped."

As Toomey said, Larrabee has always lived life to the fullest.

"Today, they make a lot of money in track," Toomey says. "They're rich in dollars, but back then, track was rich in character. And he was probably as Shakespearean as anyone in that cast."

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