It would have been hard four years ago to imagine Kelly Barmann being the favorite in a college cross country meet.
After all, Barmann, who will race for Cuesta College today at the Western State Conference finals at Cuesta Fairbanks Memorial Course, had dreams of playing basketball.
And six years ago, after a hunting accident, her surgeon feared she would never walk again without a limp.
But the freshman from New Mexico not only found her stride again, she’s thrived on a Cuesta team ranked ninth in the Southern California region.
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HER FIRST LOVE WAS BASKETBALLRunning was incidental. Partly it came with the territory for a girl who grew up on a sprawling cattle ranch in northeastern New Mexico. Partly it was an alternative to volleyball, which she found boring.
Mainly it was a way to stay in shape for basketball, which inspired her with dreams of glory from the time she started playing the game in first grade.
But running, as Barmann notes, worked out well for her. She took up organized cross country in eighth grade and quickly found she had a knack for it.
If they were good enough, kids at her junior high school could try out for spots on the local high school sports teams.
In the fall of 2003, as an eighth grader, Kelly ran cross country with the Cimarron High girls team and won the state high school individual championship.
That winter she played point guard on the girls varsity basketball team, and that spring — still in eighth grade — she won both the girls mile and two-mile events at the state high school track championships in Albuquerque.
DISASTER STRIKESThat June she slipped while hunting and shot herself in the leg with a .22-caliber rifle.
The hollow point bullet shattered her left femur but not her basketball ambitions.
Her surgeon doubted she would ever walk again without a limp, much less run, indoors or out.
Her family physician, a naturopath, was more optimistic. Under his care — which included a year-long regimen of painful injections directly into the femur — she shed her crutches within about four months.
In January 2004, equipped with a cumbersome plastic shield on her leg, she resumed playing basketball.
During games, she said, “My poor mom would sit in the stands and just cry the whole time” for fear that Kelly would reinjure the leg. Her coach was scared too. But Kelly was not to be denied. “For a long time I was extremely intent” on playing basketball, she said.
Running, however, was no longer even an afterthought.
When she transferred after her freshman year to Sandia High, home of one of the state’s premier girls high school basketball programs, the cross country coach there asked her to run. She declined. Her interest, she explained, was in basketball.
She played in a few games that season and was a starter the next, despite the fact that, as she puts it, she basically stopped growing at about 5 feet, 4 inches.
That August, going into her senior year, she had follow-up surgery to remove the rod, pin and screws in her leg. With that hardware went her basketball career and hopes of a college scholarship. There just wasn’t time to recuperate adequately before the season began. She watched her teammates that season from the stands.
Scholarship or not, she still wanted to go to college. A West Coast college tour brought her to the Central Coast, and it was love at first sight.
“When I came through San Luis, I just really felt very comfortable here,” she said.
ROAD TO SUCCESSShe enrolled at Cuesta in August and asked cross country coach Brian Locher if she could run with the team. She just wanted to meet some people, she said. She had no desire to compete. But she’s competing now. “Long story short,” she said, “he kind of talked me into it.”
Halfway through a six-meet season, she’s won two races — and finished second in a third race to last year’s Southern California 5K champion — despite the fact that her left leg still contains a smattering of lead particles from the bullet that shattered her femur six years ago.
Barmann ran her best time, 18:04, in winning the Cuesta Invitational in September.
She still has mixed emotions at best about competing.
“I’ve always enjoyed running,” she said. “I’m not particularly fond of racing.”
However, now she sees running now as a possible means to a scholarship from Cal Poly, where she hopes to study kinesiology, the science of human muscular movement, a subject in which she has some hard-won expertise.
If she runs cross country for Cal Poly, the stiffer competition she’ll encounter there will make her an even better runner, Locher said.
Meanwhile, she’s given up hunting. She’s never hunted since her accident and says, “I’m not too keen to ever touch the gun again.”
Barmann has established herself as the Cuesta women’s team’s top runner, one who competes successfully against what Locher terms “very good company” from other schools.
“Her ability to run hills is unequaled,” he said. “She just flies up the things.”