One of the greatest natural track athletes of all time died from lung cancer at age 58. He went from extreme poverty to athletic riches and back to extreme poverty, never having won an Olympic medal. He was unknown to most people but is a legend to all true fans of track and field.
He was a very poor black boy who was abused by people who tried to capitalize on his incredible athletic talent. He trained with college students at UCLA when he could neither read nor write. (I could not find out if he was actually enrolled at UCLA.) He was bankrolled by a swindler who used McTear's fame as an athlete to put money into his own pocket. When the swindler went to prison, McTear was left without funds, lost everything and spent three years sleeping on the beach. Of the many people who befriended him during his track career, none were able to get him off drugs, alcohol and cigarettes.
High School Fame
The story begins on May 9, 1975, at the Florida state high school championships on a 105 degree day. An 18 year old, 5' 7", high school kid ran 9 seconds flat for the 100 yard dash, tying the world record set by 25-year-old Ivory Crockett earlier that year, and faster than the 9.1 seconds that previous world-record holder, Bob Hayes ran in winning the 1964 Olympic 100-yard dash. (Hayes is the only man ever to have won both an Olympic gold medal and a Super Bowl ring). McTear's unbelievable time was not accepted as a high school record because nobody could believe it, even though it was hand-timed by three judges who got exactly the same time on three different stop watches. He won the high school state championships in the 100 and 220 yards four times, the only Florida high school athlete ever to do so.
This untrained high school world-record holder came from a background of abject poverty in the Florida panhandle, living next to a saw mill with his parents and six brothers and sisters in a two-room shack that flooded with every rainfall. He was unable to read and write even though he was in high school. He was lucky to have one meal a day but managed to find enough money for cigarettes. He had no regular training program or a formal coach, and ran in taped-together sneakers. His idea of training was to race the freight trains that traveled on the railroad tracks near his home.
At the 1976 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, McTear ran a 10.16 second 100 meters, at the time the fastest ever run under any condition by a high school athlete. A month later, on June 7, 1975, at the Atlanta Track Classic, he ran a 9.1 100-yard dash to tie Ivory Crockett's world record and beat future three-time Olympian Harvey Glance. Just before the race, he was seen sitting up in the stands smoking a cigarette. The following winter, he ran the 60-yard dash indoors at Madison Square Garden in 5.9 seconds, one of the fastest times ever. His high school raised money to send him to Richmond, Virginia, where he won the 60-yard dash in the U.S.-U.S.S.R. meet.
Before he was graduated from high school, a wealthy promoter named Harold Smith offered to pay for McTear’s training and he did make the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, finishing second to Harvey Glance in the 100-meter final at the trials. However, he tore his hamstring in that race and had to miss the Olympics. When Muhammad Ali saw a picture of the shack McTear lived in, he sent him a check for $35,000 to buy him a 4-bedroom brick home, clothes and furniture.
McTear now had a place to live and was paid to train for races. In March 1978, he appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated for breaking four world records in eight weeks. At the 1978 Muhammad Ali Invitational Track Meet, McTear set the 60-meter world record of 6.54 seconds, beating the seven other finalists who all had world records or Olympic medals. Before that race, he was seen "drinking beer and smoking weed". He raced well when he just smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol, but when he started to use crack, he couldn't last a full race of 100 yards. His incredible reflexes gave him a start that propelled him to lead for the first half of a 100 yard dash, but smoking, crack and other drugs exhausted him in the last part of a race, so that some opponents would pass him. In 1980, he made the Olympic team, but the United States boycotted the Olympics.
McTear had married a British girl, Jeannnie Gow, in 1978 but the marriage broke up four years later and she went back to England with their three-year-old son, Isaac, and his unborn daughter who would be named Autumn. The marriage failed largely because of his drug habit.
In 1983, he lost his financial backer, who was sentenced to prison for embezzling money. From 1984 to 1988 he lived in California, addicted to narcotics with little income to support his $300-a-week cocaine habit. He could have gone home to his family in Florida because they would gladly have accepted him. He wrote: "I was skin and bones..... homeless....and I could have went home.... I didn't because I was too ashamed about it all..... PRIDE.” In order to get a bed at a shelter for homeless people, he had to be there by a certain time. Since he usually couldn't get to a shelter on time, he often had to sleep on the streets of Santa Monica. He remembers sleeping in Cactus Park, on the tennis courts at the Pritikin Longevity Center, and under the Santa Monica Pier. His major food source was free sandwiches mornings at the Clare Foundation that serves the homeless to this day.
His Second Marriage and Redemption
In 1989, McTear showed up at the track at Santa Monica College where Linda Haglund was a track coach. They had known each other many years before when both were world-class track and field stars in the 1970s, but she was now married. Like McTear, she was a natural athlete who coached herself . She had held Swedish records in the 50, 60, 100 and 200 meter races. She was suspended from racing for 18 months because of a positive drug test. He helped her coach the athletes, and they rode bikes and walked on the beach together. Naturally, her husband complained, so she left him and went back to her native Sweden, taking McTear with her.
In Sweden he started to train again after his four years of living on the streets. In just two months, he ran 100 meters in 10.52 seconds, a national class time. Then he won the 50 meters race in the Swedish National Indoor Championship in 6.68 seconds. He kept on improving and at age 34, he won the 1991 Globen Games 60 meter race in 6.65 seconds, only a tenth of a second slower than the world record he set 13 years earlier. He wanted to make the 1992 U.S. Olympic team, but suddenly stopped training and disappeared from the competitive track scene forever.
The couple moved to Florida together in the early ’90s and his wife fit in perfectly with Houston's country family. She sold cars in a local automobile dealership, while McTear worked at a gym in nearby Fort Walton Beach. Eventually they returned to Stockholm and on November 1, 2015, McTear died of lung cancer at age 58. Three weeks later his widow died of cancer that was so widespread that doctors were unable to tell where it had started.
The "Natural Athlete"
Success in track and field depends on your genes as well as your training. If you haven't chosen your parents wisely, you cannot beat genetically-gifted people who train as hard and intelligently as you do. Good coaching and lots of practice will help you to compete against people with greater genetic potential, but when you reach the select elite levels, genetic gifts of speed and power are likely to win the races.. Houston McTear probably did not train as intensely or as often as many of his competitors, but he was able to move so fast that he could beat them all.
Knowledgeable track and field coaches can predict a child's potential for elite competition just be watching them race against other children their age. They will choose the kids who are fast and strong at different distances. Britain's Mo Farah is unbeatable in distance races because he is faster than every other distance runner. He has trained hard enough to be able to stay with any other runner during a race, and at the end he just outsprints his competitors.
In 1968 my six-year-old son, Gene, started to train for distance racing under the tutelage of coach Brooks Johnson, who has trained many Olympic champions. By age nine, he had set world records in age group distances from the half mile to two miles and had run a mile in 4 minutes and 54 seconds. He won age group races regularly and was written up in Sports Illustrated, the Washington Post and other publications. At age nine, he ran in an age-group mile race at Georgetown University's track against Lester Lyles, who was his age but more than a head taller than he was. Gene led for the first three laps with Lester right behind him. Then with 200 yards to go, Lester blew by him and won by a huge margin. That same year Lester won both the 100 yard dash and the mile at the National Age Group Championships against the best age groupers in the country. He went on to be a 1984 All American football player and four-year All Atlantic Coast Conference player at the University of Virginia. He played cornerback and strong safety for six years in the National Football League.
After that race, my son lost interest in training and eventually stopped running. He probably saw that his parents had not given him the genetic basis for success in track and field, a fact that took me many more years to understand.
Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities.