OCEANSIDE — By way of University High School, Arizona State University and oblivion, Teresa Barrios has come to Mira Costa College, the little school on a hill in North San Diego County, in search of athletic asylum.
It is here that Barrios, still considered by some to be one of the nation's best distance runners, is seeking refuge from the pressures and problems of high-profile high school and college programs.
It is here that Barrios, besieged by injuries and personal problems for the past four years, is attempting to make yet another comeback in cross-country and track.
Hasn't she had enough?
In four years of high school in Irvine, Barrios went from hero to has-been. She finished second in the Southern Section 4-A cross-country meet in her freshman year and third in her sophomore year, but a mysterious cough that six doctors were unable to identify caused her to miss most of her junior season.
"When I tried to run, I'd throw up," Barrios said.
And when she did run, she often failed to run to others' expectations. Barrios recalled one race in which she was berated by an older man, whom she didn't even know, for not winning.
Such were the pressures of being the top runner on what was considered one of the nation's best prep cross-country teams.
Barrios also didn't get along with some of her coaches. One kicked her off the track team for two weeks in her junior year for "questioning authority in front of a freshman."
By her senior year, Barrios, still feeling the effects of her cough, said she had lost interest in running and decided not to compete in cross-country or track.
After graduating in 1984, Barrios returned to her hometown of Eugene, Ore., the nation's unofficial distance-running capital, in hopes of rekindling her passion for the sport.
Barrios grew up in this running-crazed city and finished two marathons there when she was 11. But all she came away with this time was a bad case of anemia, which drained her energy and caused her to sleep about 15 hours a day.
But Roger Kerr, cross-country coach at Arizona State, still thought enough of Barrios to offer her a scholarship. She accepted and went to Tempe in January, 1985.
A month later, she was suffering from iliotibial-band syndrome, an inflammation of the thin muscle connecting her left knee and hip. Next came tendinitis in the left knee, Achilles and arch. She competed that track season in great pain.
Her grades were hurting, too. She had a 1.2 grade point average that first semester and was placed on academic probation, where she remained for two semesters.
Barrios redshirted the 1985 cross-country season, and it took six months of therapy to get back into shape for the 1986 track season. She was running well until she was caught rewarding herself after a race with a wine cooler.
That got her kicked off the team.
Ken Lehman, who had replaced the fired Kerr in August, 1985, called it one of those "unfortunate incidents." Barrios thought the athletic department was using her as an example for their get-tough stand against alcohol and drug abuse.
Barrios could have stayed at the school, but her scholarship was cut in half. She then decided over the summer that enough was enough.
"I was just going nowhere," she said.
So, she came to Fallbrook with her boyfriend, former ASU miler Treg Scott, who is training in the North San Diego County area. Barrios figured she'd go to the nearest available community college.
Welcome to Mira Costa.
Barrios has spent the past two months here running with the Spartans' cross-country team, trying to prove she's not washed up at 20.
After a fairly successful season, which is nearing a close with today's Southern California Regionals in Vista's Guajome Park and next weekend's state meet in Fresno, Barrios, 5-foot-5 and 112 pounds, feels rejuvenated.
For the first time in four years, she is healthy. And, for a change, she is enjoying herself, despite the absence of stiff competition on the community college level and a rigorous training program at Mira Costa.
"I feel I'm running for myself," Barrios said. "It's nice to enjoy it, and that makes a big difference. I needed that little break where everything wasn't as serious as it was in high school or college, where I didn't have to answer to anyone.
"I didn't think I'd ever run again because I had so many setbacks in high school and at ASU, but I never lost the desire."
Barrios, Mira Costa's No. 1 runner, has won two community college invitationals this fall, one at Irvine and one at San Mateo, and she also won the Pacific Coast Conference meet. Against Division I competition, she placed 11th in the UCLA Invitational and 24th at the Cal Poly San Luis Obispo Invitational, 45 seconds behind the winner.
Her times for 5,000 meters have been consistently in the 17:30 range for the past few weeks--nowhere near her fastest 5K time in high school (16:45) but she's trying to remain patient.