Bethel Park's Trevor Barron has overcome epilepsy, brain surgery to pursue an Olympic dream
August 2, 2012 5:23 AM
Trevor Barron competes in the men's 20 kilometer racewalk on Saturday in London.
By J. Brady McCollough Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
LONDON -- A special document sits filed away on the Barron family laptop. When Bruce Barron gets the urge, he'll open it, and his fingers will tap the keys until he's satisfied with the day's work.
As Trevor Barron prepares to represent his country in the Olympic 20-kilometer racewalk Saturday, he can rest assured that his biography is in the most caring and diligent of hands. More than 30,000 words have been written already to sum up 19 years that nobody, not even the author, can truly believe, especially when the chronology is laid out in front of him.
A father's love can skew perception, which moments in the arc of his son's life are the most true and revealing. With Trevor, there are so many for Bruce to sift through. Like this one, from the boy's turbulent teenage years:
Trevor was diagnosed with epilepsy at age 8. At 13, he had a serious surgery to correct the chronic neurological disorder seen most often through frequent seizures and was supposed to be free of further burden. But, post-surgery, he had speech and memory problems, and the seizures continued to the point he had to return to the hospital. Soon, he would be put on medication for manic depression.
"That was a very trying time for him," Bruce said.
One night, around 11 p.m., Trevor became so frustrated he just had to get out of the house and do something, anything, to be active. Bruce and Trevor's mother, Nancy, allowed him to go outside their Bethel Park home and run a lap around the block. That wasn't enough. Back inside, he got on the stationary bike, set it on high and spun out his excess energy.
From the time he was 9, Trevor had wanted to find a sport at which he could be great. His older sister, Tricia, was a budding young star in track and field, and he wasn't going to let his epilepsy keep him from following in her footsteps. Already an accomplished swimmer in his age group, he wanted to join Tricia at the track national championships.
He trained for multiple events, including the javelin and the high jump. But he wanted to make sure he could earn a bid, and there was this event called racewalking that didn't have nearly as many competitors at the regional level. That piqued Trevor's interest.
"I tried literally everything to be successful," Trevor said.
He tried playing the trumpet. He tried Boy Scouts. He tried at school. He tried at church. Until one day, as a fourth-grader, his parents had to step in.
"You are overcommitted," they told him.
He had to drop one by the next school year, they said, and there went the trumpet.
Through it all, Trevor lived each day with the knowledge that, at some point, he was likely to have a seizure.
"There's really nothing I could do," he said. "It would happen, and I couldn't control it, and it would be over, and I'd continue with my day."
Most of them were routine, but some of them would end up costing him his earliest dreams. Swimming was Trevor's first love, and he had emerged as one of the best swimmers in the East Region. But in the fall of 2005, he was swimming the 200-meter individual medley when he was struck by a seizure in the middle of the race. He was dragged from the pool and helped to the deck, where Bruce came to be by his side.
Deep down, Bruce knew what this latest seizure meant for Trevor.
"My wife and I had a friend with epilepsy, and she drowned in the bathtub," Bruce said.
Trevor would have to stop swimming. It devastated him. But, there was still racewalking. Ever since making those national championships in 2002 -- he finished second just months after learning the sport -- it was clear he had a natural gift for it.
That Christmas, his parents gave him a thoughtful present: A spring break trip to Texas to train with the country's only purely racewalk team, the South Texas Walking Club. The whole family went to McAllen, Texas, for nine days, and with that, Trevor was given another outlet to chase success.
Still, he hadn't given up on swimming. As he got older and the seizures worsened, the option of corrective surgery became more appealing. If it worked, he could jump back into the pool with his friends and, most important, live without the fear of seizures constantly hanging over him.
Of course, there were risks. In the process of removing the damaged brain tissue, his motor function could be affected. Because of that, the surgeon elected to leave some of the tissue that was causing the epilepsy in Trevor's brain while taking out the parts that were definitely safe to remove.
He would have to stay on medication, but the surgery was ultimately successful. The initial post-surgery seizures wore off, and Trevor was allowed to return to the pool in his freshman year at Bethel Park High School. Unfortunately, he had lost a lot of his endurance in his year off, and he did not approach a championship qualifying time in any of his events. Trevor was discouraged, but he showed up the next year to try again. Within a week, he quit, knowing he had lost his passion.
It was only then that he put his full focus on racewalking. Still, it was never easy.
Racewalkers have to follow two rules, according to the International Association of Athletics Federations: First, at least a part of one foot must be touching the ground at all times. Second, the advancing leg must be straightened (not bent at the knee) from the moment of first contact with the ground until the vertical upright position.
To stay in accordance, racewalkers move their hips and arms in a way that critics consider more feminine than masculine. Trevor would train in South Park where many of his classmates could see him practicing his peculiar sport, and he struggled to block out the snickers and name-calling.
"I was very susceptible to the ridicule I was receiving," Trevor said.
So susceptible that he decided to leave the sport after his first international competition in May 2008 and become a runner, a period which lasted six months. Trevor watched the Beijing Olympics and realized that he was missing out on the chance of a lifetime, to compete and make new friends all over the world. And because of what? Some kids?
"I just said, 'I'm doing this, and I'm going to London,' " Trevor said. "I'm going to the Olympics, and what are they doing? They're just wasting their time without understanding what I'm doing."
The Barron family went all-in for London 2012. Because Nancy's job working with visually impaired children could pay the bills, Bruce, a freelance writer, had the time to home-school Trevor for his final two years of high school. Home-schooling freed Trevor to travel wherever he needed to go for racewalking, and it gave father and son plenty to discuss as they walked thousands of miles together through South Park.
Trevor's training regimen demanded that he walk 130 kilometers (about 85 miles) a week, and Bruce wasn't going to let him do it alone. Bruce was already in good shape, but he would push himself to the limit, jogging just about all of those miles next to Trevor, ready with water whenever the boy was thirsty. They would talk about school topics such as Russian history and calculus as they traversed the park, day after day, and Trevor was ever-appreciative of his father's commitment.
"I probably wouldn't still be training if he didn't support me in that way," Trevor said.
Trevor, who just finished his freshman year at Colorado College, entered the U.S. track and field trials as the unquestioned favorite for London. He routinely sped along to victory, completing one journey and starting another one fraught with challenges.
"It's an amazing story to come from epilepsy to brain surgery to Olympian, but it becomes so much better if it's epilepsy to brain surgery to Olympic champion." Trevor said. "And it takes so much more work to get there."
It is all but certain Trevor won't win a medal Saturday. He is at least four more years of tireless work away from approaching the victory ceremony, and so Trevor will have some tough questions to answer as the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games approach. Part of him would rather enjoy his seizure-free life doing something other than racewalking. Another part of him knows how inspiring his story could be, especially if he someday won Olympic gold.
"I've had a lot of opportunities to tell people about what I've done, but I'm still relatively unknown as an athlete, and there's still a lot more that I could do," he said. "I just don't know if I'm at a point where it's worthwhile yet."
Trevor has been stubbornly pursuing athletic achievement his entire life, and now, before his 20th birthday, he's actually thinking about stopping?
Bruce understands. "We're a Christian family, and we have trained him to be humble and not seek greatness for himself ... "
Recently, Trevor said to Bruce, "I'm glad I'm not Michael Phelps," and perhaps Trevor's story is so good he won't have to win gold to become an inspiration.
Certainly, the material will be there for a gripping biography.