Kovacevic: Trevor Barron's walk of life
LONDON — Walked about 4-5 miles Wednesday morning to meet with Bethel Park's Trevor Barron at the Olympic Athletes' Village. Moved pretty briskly, too, between the train stops. Blew by several fellow pedestrians.
Which, as I saw it, essentially made us peers.
Except for that part, of course, where Barron will compete for a gold medal Saturday in the Olympic 20-kilometer race walk.
“Yeah, I kind of get that all the time, about race walking and how easy it must be,” Barron replied to my joke with a wow-that's-really-original-dude grin. “Back home, where I walk on Corrigan Drive ... well, let's just say the looks I get aren't what they used to be.”
And why might that be?
“I think there's a little more respect when they see me going faster than the runners.”
Tune in this weekend, and check out the odd sight of elite athletes from across the globe — the favorites for gold range from East Africa to Central America to, um, South Hills Village — racing 10 times back and forth before no less a structure than Buckingham Palace.
“I keep getting asked if I'll bow to the queen every time we pass,” Barron said, laughing.
That's not all that would look funny to some. The sport itself draws about a 10-to-1 ratio of giggles to gasps once people see how the arms swing wildly and the hips swivel like the inside of a washing machine. The visual can be a little discomfiting.
But the technique works, usually to a smooth six-minute mile. The hips generate the torque, and the feet - one of which must always stay on the ground, per the rules - do the rest.
Barron's better at this than most.
He's only 19 in a sport where champions tend to be crowned in their late 20s, but he's a rising - no, soaring - star: He just won the U.S. Olympic trials two months ago in an American-record time of 1 hour, 23 minutes, the victory that sent him here. His average time isn't considered world class, but he has placed as high as third in international meets.
He could win.
“Being taller and younger could be an advantage,” Barron said. “I can do 181 steps in a minute to most other racers' 200, but then I've also got to work a lot harder to move that. I'm confident, and I'm looking forward to the challenge.”
Barron's back story is better than most, too.
His first love was swimming but, at age 8 while racing with Mt. Lebanon Aqua Club, he felt a tingling and clung to the ropes. No one noticed. Upon emerging from the pool, he fell headfirst on a cement walkway.
Doctors diagnosed Barron with a rare form of epilepsy. The swimming had to stop. Instructors feared Barron could drown.
Undeterred, Barron followed older sister Tricia into track and field, but that didn't work out, either, when he quickly realized he wasn't a runner. So, at age 9, he tried the race walk. His wiry build - it's still that way at 6-foot-2, 160 pounds - was perfect, and he was an instant hit.
“Just fell in love,” he said. “It got me onto the track, which is what I wanted most.”
The seizures didn't stop, though. By age 12, they'd last as long as 20 seconds and occur once an hour.
So, in August 2006, doctors at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh performed two brain surgeries to remove damaged matter from his frontal lobe. His speech was slurred for several weeks, and there were more seizures, but it all gradually improved.
Not fast enough for Barron, apparently. He was told that summer he'd need to skip a year of school but stubbornly refused. Same with the track. By October, he was race walking again and, to boot, was the fastest member of the high school cross country team.
“Nothing was going to hold me back,” he said.
Barron has been seizure-free since and has become a national model for overcoming epilepsy.
To hear him now, there's a quiet calm, a confidence. And it's easy to tell that personality helps him not only in racing but also in taking time to appreciate all that's happened.
“It's an amazing place, an amazing setup they've got for us here,” Barron said. “It's been such an honor just be around these people.”
He then motioned to a Spanish athlete strolling by.
“The funny thing about the Village is, you really can't tell from people just hanging around in their national uniforms what their sport is. What do you think that guy is? You'd have no way of knowing.”
That led to my last question: Has this experience helped him feel, once and for all, like a legitimately elite international athlete?
“It's been nice.”
I don't think so.
This kid doesn't have many of those in any walk of life.