After suffering a serious heart attack, many people would take it easy. But for Winnipegger Lou Billinkoff, it was just the start of his goal to become a record-holding sprinter.
Nicknamed “Lightning Lou,” Billinkoff died March 14 at age 99 after a ten-year sprinting career that saw him become the fastest Canadian man in the 90-to-94 and 95-to-99 age groups.
After suffering the heart attack at 89, Billinkoff—who worked for 40 years as an engineer at Manitoba Hydro—began a cardiac program as part of his healing process.
“When I was recovering, the doctor suggested I take some rehab physical therapy at a centre they have here, a program specially suited for people recovering from heart attacks,” Billinkoff said in an interview with the Jewish Independent three years ago.
“Part of the program is to walk on a track. I did that for maybe a year and, when I recalled how much pleasure I got when I ran earlier in life, I thought I’d just try it out and see what I still could do.”
One day, when he was running the 100 metres, his son, Errol, clocked him and said he was running at championship speed for his age.
Errol suggested he run competitively, and Billinkoff agreed to give it a try. To his surprise, he did quite well.
He went on to become the fastest 95-year-old in Canada in the 100-metre sprint. At the age of 96, he ran the 50-metre sprint in 15.67 seconds, beating the 2018 world best time in his category by more than a second.
Reflecting at the funeral on his father’s life, his son, Errol, noted it wasn’t until his heart attack that his father “hit his stride.”
After setting a new Canadian record at age 92, he “was hooked. It became like a drug and consumed his attention ever since… it was thus that the legend of Lightning Lou was born.”
Billinkoff’s prowess on the track turned him into a “media darling and local celebrity,” Errol said. “Soon his story spread across the country.”
When he set a new world record in 2018, it was “his greatest sprinting success ever,” he said.
When the pandemic curbed his sprinting career, Billinkoff took up shot put and discus to stay in shape. “I will never forget watching my 99-year-old father fling a shot put and hurl a discus so effortlessly across the lawn,” Errol said.
As his 100th birthday approached, his son thought he might tempt his father into competing one last time in a new age class. But Billinkoff “wasn’t biting. He argued that he hadn’t been training, wasn’t in shape and just couldn’t possibly do it. As far as he was concerned, he had hung up his track shoes for the last time.”
“While we are all sad about Dad’s passing, we also want to celebrate his life and his achievements,” Errol said. “He leaves behind big track shoes to fill.”
Also at the funeral, his grandson Asher remembered him as his zayde, and how “living down the street from him and Baba was a blessing. They would host us for Shabbat dinner every week without fail… that dining room table was the hearth of our childhood.”
Asher also recalled Billinkoff’s contributions through Hydro, including leading the effort to install lights in back lanes throughout Winnipeg, leading a project to relocate overhead wiring by placing it underground to help beautify the city, and installing the annual Christmas lights downtown.
“Zaida never discriminated and knew how to shine his light on everyone,” Asher said, adding that outside of work “he was known for his humble, loving, jovial, quirky, organized and idiosyncratic personality… he entered every room with a big smile.”
While still working for Hydro, Billinkoff would always keep an eye on the streets for burned out lights, Asher remembered.
“If he encountered one, he would take note of its location and ensure that it was dealt with promptly. After hearing these stories from a young age, I had formed this image of him as the man who kept the lights on. Not only did his family depend upon him, but the community did too. Through his tireless efforts to keep the streetlights shining bright, Zaida embodied the spirit of the ner tamid, a symbol of God’s unwavering presence and care for his people.”
In an interview with the Winnipeg Sun after he broke the world best time in 50 metres for his age group, Billinkoff had this advice for those around his age who are considering giving running a try.
“You should try something even if you don’t think you can do it because I never imagined I would be in this position,” he said. “I wasn’t running at all. It surprised me. I didn’t know I could do it.”
In addition to his sons Lorne and Errol, Billinkoff is survived by his wife Ruth, four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.