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

October 19, 1989|JOHN ORTEGA | 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."

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