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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Racewalker

As master of an unusual sport, Trevor Barron has had to endure more than most on the road to Olympic glory



BY THE TIME HE WAS 15, Trevor Barron could walk at a ferocious clip. His hip-swiveling, arm-pumping style was so efficient it propelled him past some joggers at his local track in suburban Pittsburgh. But the same gait that made Barron a rising international star in the esoteric sport of racewalking also brought him a lot of grief. When he trained on a roadside path in a nearby county park, guys passing by in pickup trucks would taunt him. As he worked out at the middle school track, other kids would sashay behind him, lampooning his form and yelling, “Am I doing it right?”

It was only when Barron traveled all the way to Pharr, Texas, a tiny hot spot of racewalking near the Mexican border, that he found respect and his own kind. The minute that A.C. Jaime, the coach at the racewalking camp there, saw the tall, skinny teen’s fluid stride, he had Barron demonstrate it to the other racewalkers who had come from across the country to train in the Rio Grande Valley.

Barron was a star in Texas, and he was gifted enough to compete in international events. Yet when he returned home, he was still greeted with taunts. One day, mid-workout, Barron looked up to see a woman making a video of him with her cellphone. That was it. He’d had enough. Being an adolescent was tough enough without becoming a YouTube joke.

Barron competed in one more international meet, in Cheboksary, Russia, in 2008, and then quit the sport he loved. After six months, though, he missed his friends from around the world so much that he returned to racewalking. Three years later, at the shockingly young age of 18, he won the 20-km national championship in 1:23:25.

Today Barron is considered a bright hope for the London 2012 Olympic Games, where a U.S. racewalking medal would do wonders for the sport’s credibility. It could be a long shot: The last (and only) U.S. racewalker to win an Olympic Medal was Larry Young, who took bronze in both 1968 and 1972. But if anyone can pull an upset and end the 40-year drought, it’s Barron, says his coach, Tim Seaman, himself a two-time Olympic racewalker. “Trevor is a great athlete. He has shocked the world.”

Even getting to the Olympic Games is an act of physical and mental endurance for U.S. racewalkers. While Russian, Chinese and Ecuadorian racewalkers are buoyed by cheering spectators and generous stipends, most U.S. racewalkers train alone and have to defend themselves against charges of weirdness. Seaman gets sick of hearing the cutting comments.

“It is the same as the butterfly in swimming,” he says. “Normal people can’t do the butterfly. It makes no sense. But I’m not going to tell Michael Phelps he looks weird.”

IT’S A RAW WINTER MORNING in Pittsburgh, and rain pelts Barron as he does a 12-km workout on the same road where he was mocked as a kid. The 19-year-old doesn’t break a sweat as he clocks eight-minute miles, a deliberately slow pace for someone whose best mile is a blazing 6:03.48, the national high school record he set in 2010. But he’s fast enough today that he could be mistaken for a jogger.

The 6-foot-3 athlete walks fluidly despite adhering to his sport’s deceptively difficult rules: The knee of the leading leg must be straight at the point of contact, and one foot must always be on the ground. A racewalker who is cited for three “lifting” violations faces the indignity of being ejected by the chief judge hoisting a red stop sign paddle. A marathoner can break stride without scrutiny, but a racewalker has to remain attentive to form just to stay in the race. Luckily, that comes easily to Barron, now a freshman at Colorado College. “I find the motion very natural,” he says in a voice so soft it barely rises above a whisper.

That isn’t to say he hasn’t faced his share of physical struggles. Barron first tried racewalking at age 9 because he wanted to go to the National Junior Olympic Games with his older sister, Tricia, who was competing in the high jump and hurdles. Back then his favorite sport was swimming, but he suffered from epilepsy and the seizures would force him to hang on to the ropes mid-meet to keep from drowning. After his swimming coach made him quit for safety reasons, Barron became a devoted racewalker.

In 2006, at age 13, he underwent two surgeries to isolate and splice the part of his brain responsible for his epilepsy. That, along with medication, kept him seizure-free and healthy enough for racewalking. Since there was no high school racewalking team, his parents home-schooled him during his junior and senior years so he could travel to San Diego to train with Seaman. Barron’s father, Bruce, came along. “Trevor would be walking and his father would be running and they would be discussing biology or Russian history,” Seaman says. “Trevor is not your typical kid.”

The turning point of Barron’s career was the 2009 world championships, where he placed a disappointing fourth. Upon returning home, he put on a Lance Armstrong “Live Strong” rubber bracelet, writing “Don’t regret” on it to motivate himself during training. The next year, he went on a tear, breaking record after record in the junior division.

Coach Jaime says the racewalking community has high hopes for Barron in London. But if he doesn’t medal there, he has plenty of future Olympic opportunities, since it’s not uncommon for racewalkers to compete into their 30s and 40s. As much as Barron would like an Olympic Medal, though, he knows it will not change his sport. For that, he would like to see racewalkers participate in high school track meets, win NCAA scholarships, land shoe endorsement deals. And a little respect — yes, that would be nice too.

Hemispheres contributor CRISTINA ROUVALIS admits to trying racewalking, though in the privacy of her backyard.

Racewalking’s Olympic journey

• Racewalking first sets foot on the Olympic stage in 1904, at the St. Louis Games, in the form of a half-mile walk in the “all-rounder” event (a forerunner of the decathlon). It will be added as a stand-alone event at the London 1908 Olympic Games, and, save for 1928, appear in every Olympic Games thereafter.

• In Antwerp in 1920, 18-year-old Italian Ugo Frigerio provides the arena’s band conductor with sheet music to be performed during his race. Though he stops to admonish the band for its errant tempo, he wins easily.

• The U.S.S.R. makes its first foray into racewalking in 1952, in Helsinki, and its champion, Bruno Junk, takes home the bronze — despite the fact that he and Swiss Silver Medalist Fritz Schwab broke into sprints near the finish line, infuriating Swedish Gold Medalist John Mikaelsson, as well as the seven previously disqualified competitors.

• Perhaps because of photos showing that 1976 champion Daniel Bautista committed lifting violations, the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games are a study in severity. Seven walkers are disqualified, including Bautista, only 2,500 meters from the finish. As Soviet Anatoly Solomin takes the lead, he too is disqualified, leaving Italian Maurizio Damilano to take the win in 1:23:35.5, shaving a full minute off Bautista’s 1976 time.

• Women can participate in 10-km racewalks for the first time in 1992 in Barcelona. Racing for China, Yueling Chen becomes the first Asian woman to win gold in a track and field event.

• In Sydney in 2000, the women’s 10-km race is replaced with the standard 20-km, with Wang Liping taking the gold for China. On the men’s side, Robert Korzeniowski of Poland makes history by taking gold in both the 20-km and 50-km racewalks.

• In 2012, American racewalker Erin Taylor-Talcott achieves a qualifying time for the 2012 Olympic trials in the 50-km racewalk. Though she will not be able to compete in the men’s event, she has been allowed to participate in the trial race, which could open the door to women competing at the longer distance. — Compiled by Felicia Campbell

2 Responses to “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Racewalker”

  1. Allen James Says:
    April 3rd, 2012 at 4:47 am

    Great article on Trevor! Last weekend, he easily cruised to the Olympic A Standard at the trials race for the US World Cup team. It’s important to note the Trevor does this sport with little support. His family bears most of the burden for his training, education and living expenses, where lesser athletes receive scholarships at most universities worth $50K plus per year.
    You can help by donating to NARI – North American Racewalking Institute at http://www.narionline.org/nari/default.asp.
    I write this as a two-time Olympian, who like Trevor, had little support in my endeavors to compete against professionals.
    Allen James – ’92 & ’96 US Olympian

  2. Jane Says:
    April 3rd, 2012 at 10:11 am

    Way to GO!!
    Go, Go, Go.
    Keep up the good work.

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