College

Saturday, May 12 2012 05:45 PM

After rough journey, runner finding stride

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    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    BC track runner Chris Schwartz at Memorial Stadium on Wednesday afternoon.

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    By Michael Fagans / The Californian

    Chris Schwartz carries a reminder about not squandering his talent with his Steve Prefontaine quote tattoo that reads, "To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift."

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BY JEFF EVANS Californian staff writer jevans@bakersfield.com

As a runner, Chris Schwartz seemed to have everything going his way his final two years at Foothill High.

He won the state CIF Division I cross country championship as a junior and was the boys 1,600-meter state champion as a senior. Schwartz accepted a partial scholarship offer to Cal Poly, a solid track and cross country program.

But academic and financial issues led to Schwartz leaving Cal Poly after only 1 1/2 quarters.

He joined the Army reserves. That didn't work out.

Schwartz already had a troubled life before these issues came up. He was in and out of two group homes and spent time with five foster families growing up. He ran away from home numerous times.

The pressure became too much.

Late on March 19, 2011, he stole a friend's car, drove into the Kern River Canyon and tried to kill himself by driving off the road and into the river.

* * *

Schwartz has a tattoo on his left arm of a quote from the late Steve Prefontaine, one of America's greatest runners:

"To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift."

Schwartz is following that credo these days.

Almost 13 months after his attempted suicide, Schwartz -- now competing for Bakersfield College -- broke BC's school records in the 1,500 meters and 5,000 meters at the prestigious Mount San Antonio College Relays on April 14.

Schwartz ran the 1,500 in 3 minutes, 49.19 seconds, breaking the former BC record of 3:52.08 set by Charlie Wallace in 1981. Schwartz's 5,000 time of 14:34.38 broke BC's previous best of 14:52.8 set by Angel Carrillo in 1978.

Those marks are still Schwartz's season bests.

"Chris is back, and that's awesome to see," said Kevin Charette, the morning weatherman at KGET Channel 17 who is a close friend and mentor to Schwartz. "He has such amazing talent."

Since taking up track, Schwartz's talent hasn't been questioned. He quickly focused on reaching new heights when he joined BC's team in January.

"At the beginning of the year, I always look at the school records," Schwartz said. "When I saw them, I said, 'Alright, those are my goals for this year.' I wanted to break them, or at least get close to them. I always aim for being better."

 

 

 

 

 

Schwartz, 22, entered Saturday's Southern California Track and Field Finals ranked No. 3 in the state in the 1,500 and No. 4 in the 5,000. He is focused on next Saturday's junior college state championships at Cerritos College and expects to win both races.

Cerritos' Daniel Herrera is No. 1 in both the 1,500 and 5,000, but he has withdrawn from the 1,500 to try to win a difficult double: the 10,000 next Friday and Saturday's 5,000. Herrera has a 14:14.19 this season in the 5,000.

"I was talking smack to him (Herrera), so I have to back that up," Schwartz said.

With Herrera's departure in the 5,000, American River's Matt Airola has the best time in the 1,500 at 3:47.95.

"I'm not worried," Schwartz said. "If he was any good, I'd still beat him."

* * *

Schwartz's childhood was rough.

In a Californian story in November 2008, Schwartz said he didn't remember everything about his childhood. He has never met his father. He said he ran away from home after he was abused by the man living with his mother.

He would run away many more times the next few years as he bounced around between foster families and group homes.

School was a challenge, and that was before he enrolled at Cal Poly.

"I didn't start reading until I started high school," Schwartz said.

By the time he approached graduation at Foothill High in the spring of 2009, Schwartz said, "My reading level was probably fourth grade at best."

Cal Poly uses the quarter system, so classwork is condensed into a shorter period of time than the semester system used in high school and at BC.

That added to his academic challenges, and then there were money problems.

"I did bad in their eyes," Schwartz said of Cal Poly's academic overseers. "It was tough with all the classes and adjusting to the quarter system.

"And financially I didn't have a full-ride scholarship there. So I was basically paying for it myself. I had financial aid and that was about it."

So he returned to Bakersfield in early 2010 and eventually enlisted in the Army reserve.

"I went to basic training. It took me six months to do everything I needed to do," Schwartz said. "It all caught up to me after I came back after the Army, after basic training."

Schwartz said he "didn't do anything for a year."

"I got into a little trouble."

After a long pause, he continued: "And what got me into trouble: I took my friend's car."

Schwartz said he felt like life wasn't worth living. He drank heavily that night, "a mixture of beer and vodka," he said.

"I drove the car off the cliff. I drove into the Kern River. I don't know how I survived.

"And then, out of nowhere, something said to me, 'Don't worry, you'll be OK.' There was no one else in the car. I don't know what to think about that."

Schwartz said he was drifting in and out of consciousness. "The water was rushing into the car and I couldn't get out.

"That was the last thing I heard before I passed out."

When he came to, Schwartz said he was out of the car. "And there's nobody there."

He said he can't explain how he got out. There were no witnesses who saw him drive off the road.

Schwartz was not injured seriously. He said the most visible wound was a cut on his left ring finger as he pointed out the 2-inch long scar. He had some bruises and was sore.

Schwartz said he climbed back to the highway and was given a ride back to Bakersfield by two people who saw him standing alongside the road.

"When I got time to actually think about what happened, I was kind of happy I was still alive."

But his troubles weren't over. He was facing a felony stolen car charge.

"My friend's dad pressed charges against me for taking the car," Schwartz said. "Those were the only charges brought against me."

According to court documents and the sheriff's department report, Schwartz was arrested on April 25, 2011. He waived all his rights and admitted stealing the car.

"Since it was my first-time offense, the judge decided to put me on probation for three years," he said. "After that I've been on my best behavior."

His driving privileges were suspended for a year, effective last May 10, according to court documents. He was also ordered to undergo mental health counseling.

Last fall, Schwartz decided he wanted to return to school. He talked with BC track coach Dave Frickel and enrolled for the spring semester that started in January. Schwartz said he's focused on school and track, and he's put his troubled past behind him.

"I feel a lot better now," he said. "I have a lot more support around me. I have a few people I can talk to and they're helping me. I'm going to church and praying. Faith helps me get through it."

* * *

Charette, who has been a mentor to Schwartz for the last five years, said the hurdles Schwartz has had to overcome are far beyond what you typically see.

"Going from foster home to foster home, he never had a stable environment for a stable education," Charette said.

Charette said he discovered Schwartz's inability to read.

"He would insert words into the reading so he could complete the sentence," Charette said. "For years he did that. He fooled teachers for years."

Charette said he got Schwartz to read aloud, and then corrected him when words not in the text were used. Charette said that triggered a lot of anger and frustration. But in time, the extra work paid off. Schwartz's reading improved.

Charette said he thinks the suicide attempt helped Schwartz turn around his life.

"I think going off that cliff scared him and I think it woke him up," Charette said. "I told him, 'Chris, if you died, I would have died myself.' I would have been devastated. He's like a little brother to me."

* * *

Frickel said Schwartz's background is not discussed among his teammates and doesn't think most members of the team know about Schwartz's upbringing. Frickel added that Schwartz has been a positive influence on his teammates.

"He's a real asset to this program," Frickel said. "He's a great young man. I've enjoyed working with him.

"He goes above and beyond anything you ask him. He's a good role model and a good listener. Anything I ask him to do on the track he's very responsive. He listens. He understands, training as well as racing."

Frickel said he's amazed at how well Schwartz has done since resuming track in January.

"To come back after a couple of years off and go way beyond anything he was in high school, in a span of 41⁄2 months, is amazing," Frickel said.

"It's a lot of hard work. I know he works hard because I know I'm punishing him. He wants to get to a certain level and I'm trying to help him get to that level. ...

"And he's not done. He'll drop more on his times. He's not tapped out."

Frickel said athletes who step away from sports or school early in their college years and then return often have more dedication.

"A lot of athletes lose focus," Frickel said. "I think he has a better understanding of that now. With my experience, sometimes when you get an older athlete coming back, they come back very purposeful for what they want to do."

Frickel added: "It seems like everything is going pretty well for him. We're just hoping everything falls into place."

Schwartz said he plans on returning to BC next year and then hopes to continue his education at the four-year level.

He said he expects to have a more successful college experience in the future.

"Because I will know what to expect, both in track and academically," Schwartz said.

"I look forward to unleashing him in the cross country season," Frickel said of next fall. "I don't think a lot of people understand where this guy's at level-wise. I think he can do some pretty impressive things."

Charette said he thinks Schwartz will use his second chance at life to complete his education and predicts Schwartz will eventually coach track.

"When he called me and told me he was going to BC, I couldn't have been happier," Charette said.

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