Land O’ Lakes junior Steven Barnabei’s battle with brain cancer
By Kyle LoJacono
Steven Barnabei was having his best cross country season during the fall of 2012.
The Land O’ Lakes junior was close to lowering his personal record in a 5-kilometer race below 17 minutes for the first time. He was unable to put up the kind of times he wanted during his sophomore season, his first year on the squad, because he was recovering from a torn abductor muscle in his leg suffered after the track season as a freshman.
Barnabei was also named a team captain during the fall, rose into the Gators’ top five and helped the squad win its first Sunshine Athletic Conference championship in three years with a 14th-place finish on Oct. 20.
The conference meet was followed by two weeks of preparation by Land O’ Lakes for the district meet, which was set for Nov. 2, but Barnabei was far from his teammates during the race.
“On the day of districts I was prepping for brain surgery,” Barnabei said. He added, “A couple days before my doctor said I should get a scan, and the day I went in for my MRI they rushed me to surgery.”
The MRI found a tumor in Barnabei’s left parietal lobe, the part of the brain that deals with writing, speech and perception. He said he’d been experiencing headaches, numbness on the right side of his face and difficulty speaking but didn’t think much of the issues.
“At first my teammate Dillon (Oergel) said it sounded like something was wrong,” Barnabei said. “I’m very skeptical about things being a problem. I just thought it was a normal thing with growing up, like every teenager goes through it.”
He couldn’t believe when he heard how wrong he was.
“It was a moment of, why?” Barnabei said. “What did I do in the last year to wind up here, but then I said, ‘You know, this could happen to any kid.’ I’m starting to cool down about it.”
After the hour-long surgery, Barnabei started speech, occupational and physical therapies while adjusting back to his surroundings.
“For me, the most difficult thing was I was sick all the time after surgery,” Barnabei said. “The week I got back I wasn’t used to the scent in my room. I don’t know how that happened, but I got really sick because of it. I was nauseous all the time.”
He was well enough to go out for the track and field team less than three months after surgery. Kris Keppel, who has coached the Gators cross country team for 19 years and trains the track distance athletes, said seeing Barnabei at practice is special.
“It’s great that he’s out here, because I didn’t think he’d be out here this fast,” Keppel said. “He didn’t really start running again until after Jan. 1. In four weeks of training he’s gotten his millage back up to 34 miles per week. He’s run a 12:06 two mile (3,200 meters), he’s run a 5:47 one mile (1,600) and 2:25 800, which isn’t fast, but it’s showing that he’s progressing. … He’s very focused.”
Land O’ Lakes junior distance runner Travis Nichols said having Barnabei back at practice is an inspiration.
“He went through a lot, so to see him back out here is a big boost,” Nichols said. “He’s also a really good leader, so he’s going to help us a lot.”
Barnabei said he plans to run the 1,600 and 3,200 this year.
“I’m getting back into my normal routine,” Barnabei said. “I did an 8-mile run the other day by myself, which was a big thing for me. The first day I got back and ran a slow 6-mile run, and it was a relief to get back, but I was tired. I was dead.
“This year, I want to get back under 11 minutes in the two mile, and in the one mile get near under five minutes,” Barnabei continued. “If I can do that, then I’ll feel accomplished and ready for my senior year.”
Barnabei went through his last round of cancer treatment on Jan. 30. He will get an MRI every three months for the first year, followed by additional testing for several years to monitor his progress.
Barnabei said he knows he still has a long fight ahead of him to get back to normal, but said he is very encouraged by the progress he’s already made.
“I never thought I’d be back out here doing what I love, especially not after only three months,” Barnabei said. “It strikes me after all that I’ve been through physically that I’m mentally able to be out here.”
The Gators host a quad meet Feb. 26 at 3 p.m.
—Follow Kyle LoJacono on Twitter: @Kyle_Laker