By Ken Stone
Two weeks shy of 101, Ida Keeling of the Bronx was the first female centenarian timed in the 100-meter dash, clocking 1:17.33 at April’s Penn Relays before 44,000 people in Philadelphia.
About 620 miles away in Knoxville, Paul Humphries watched ESPN and thought Keeling was moving at a “leisurely pace.”
“I knew my aunt could move faster than that,” he said.
So began a track star — 100-year-old Ella Mae Colbert of tiny Chesnee, South Carolina.
“Miss Ella Mae” raised teenager Humphries and his siblings after his father — Ella Mae’s younger brother — was killed in 1989.
From his football office at Maryville College, assistant coach Humphries, 42, hatched an idea: Have his aunt set a Guinness World Record. He called his sister, Beverly Corry, and began plotting the attempt after Ella Mae turned 100 on May 11.
First Colbert was taken on a practice run. Amid a wind of perhaps 30 mph, she trotted 100 meters at a local track in 46 or 47 seconds, Humphries told Times of San Diego.
So Humphries called his old middle-school coach in Chesnee (population 900) for use of the track and secured Charlotte Flights Timing to operate the clock — for free.
Perhaps 20-30 people were expected Tuesday, but “probably over 500” showed up, he said.
“She teaches a Bible class at the middle school every Monday,” Humphries said. “Half of those kids knew her, so they was chanting her name ‘Ella Mae.’”
Colbert started dancing — as seen on dozens of websites that picked up the viral video. But the happy jig was before her first, failed start. When the gun went off, she took five steps and tumbled to the track, scratching her chin.
“Her legs didn’t move as fast as she wanted to move,” her nephew said.
Colbert told local TV: “I think I started off too fast. You have some trials that get you down. Get up and go again.”
So she did — 2 1/2 minutes later — chin bandaged. Wearing a multicolored head scarf and dark-red Maryville College T-shirt over a long-sleeved white shirt, she motored down the track.
Timed in a solo 46.79 seconds, she beat Keeling’s mark by more than 30 seconds — with a legal aiding wind of 0.9 mph. Her achievement rocketed around the Web and onto NBC’s “Nightly News with Lester Holt.“
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An 18-minute “raw” video by NBC affiliate WYFF of Greenville, South Carolina, showed Colbert before, during and after the race — seated and holding a bouquet of flowers.
Asked what went through her mind, she said: “I was trying to set aside everybody. I wanted them to know: I’m not through yet. Not through yet.”
She admitted no burning ambition for records. In fact, she said of her family: “They’s pushing me into this. I wasn’t thinking anything. … I thought I’d get rid of it today, and now they’re telling me something else. I don’t get ready. They get me ready.”
Her speed as a kid?
Colbert said she ran for her school all over west North Carolina. “I was a winner. I stopped running for the school because they got all the credit,” she said.
“So I decided, maybe when I was 20, I’d get on the track for maybe somebody else. And I chose Jesus Christ as my coach. And I’ve been running ever since. Best coach I’ve ever had.”
Humphries and news accounts supplied other details.
“Miss Emma Mae” is a lifelong resident of Chesnee near the North Carolina border. She taught elementary and middle school at Chesnee schools and Brown’s Chapel United Methodist Church. Her 21-year Army veteran husband, Mines Colbert, died at age 70 in 1987. Her lone son died of Rocky Mountain spotted fever in the mid-1970s, Humphries said.
“She’s a strong woman,” he said. “Always been involved in her church.”
For maybe 50 years, Colbert worked elections at her local poll, sitting at her precinct from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
“She’s always been active in the community,” he said. For about 10 years, she helped run the two-week summer Chesnee Community Boot Camp for at-risk young people, “taught little kids how to behave.”
Humphries’ sister visits her aunt daily in the 3-bedroom house she’s called home since the 1970s. Humphries brother Corey is vice president of student affairs at Shorter University in Rome, Georgia.
“She’ll walk a few miles a week,” he said. “Lives right near our church. Walks around the block. She’s really active. That’s why I knew” she could break the record.
“She’s feeling a lot better today,” he said Friday, his own birthday. “She’s feeling pretty good.”
Good enough for another record?
“She talks about [another run],” Humphries said. “A group out of Charlotte wants her to run. A group out of Greenville … wants her to run. We’re in the process of thinking about it, so we’ll see how she feels. Right now it’s a possibility.”
Humphries is aware that USA Track & Field and World Masters Athletics wouldn’t ratify her Chesnee time. At least three people have to be in a race at a USATF-sanctioned event for a mark to count as a record, along with other conditions.
Several summer meets would fit the bill, including the Jim Law Invitational on June 17 at Charlotte’s West Mecklenburg High School and the USA Masters Games in late July in Greensboro, North Carolina.
Humphries, a 1997 graduate of Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, where he was a football star all four years, played in the Canadian Football League in the late 1990s (for the British Columbia Lions and Toronto Argonauts).
In high school, he trained himself for speed (which helped net him 31 interceptions) by getting up at 6 a.m. daily to run sprints. After ninth grade, he was unbeaten. But he didn’t explore his potential in college.
“I really regret not running,” he said.
Up in New York, Ida Keeling wasn’t sorry to see a rival claim No. 1 centenarian speedster.
“Congratulations Ella Mae on your 100 meter dash,” Keeling posted on Facebook. “God has blessed you the same as he has blessed me.”
And she concluded: “If we get two more, we can run a relay!”
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