PADECKY: Healdsburg track excels by following the leader


Healdsburg's Maria Barragan. (Photo by Crista Jeremiason, The Press Democrat)

Healdsburg’s Maria Barragan. (Photo by Crista Jeremiason, The Press Democrat)

HEALDSBURG — They flocked to Maria Barragan, her track teammates did, attracted to her strength sheathed in humility. They knew of her pain, of her family situation, of so many excuses she could have made but didn’t. Barragan would scream from the treatment on the scar tissue in her lower legs, the treatment that happened three times a week for the last four months. Yet, the girls lean forward to hear her soft voice. Sweet as she is, Maria Barragan ain’t no cupcake.

“I want to be Maria,” said middle distance runner Bianca Nicastro.

The Healdsburg girls won the school’s first SCL track and field championship in 32 years last Saturday. They won 10 of 14 events. This year they established school records in nine events. One would think, armed with that information, this story is about winning. It isn’t. It’s about inspiration, the kind that comes, not from words, but from actions.

“Sometimes I think about complaining,” said hurdler and sprinter McKenzie Schaffner. “Then I remember what Maria has gone through. I have nothing to complain about.”

Barragan came to Healdsburg from the Mexican state of Michoacán when she was in the fifth grade. Arriving with her mother and two sisters, Barragan didn’t speak a word of English. Her father stayed in Mexico. She hasn’t seen him since she left eight years ago. Her mother, Lorena, works six days a week, 12 hours a day, as a waitress and housecleaner. Nothing has been given her, nor does she feel entitled.

“My mom is my role model,” said Barragan, a senior who carries a 3.8 GPA. “She has worked since she was 13. I want to work hard. I want to be the first one from my family to graduate from high school, the first one to graduate from college. I want to make her proud. I feel inspired by her.”

Inspiration is not a static emotion. It flows. If encouraged, it seeks company. Like a smile spreading. The inspiration for change in the Healdsburg track program arrived last December. A new track season was upon them. The new coach, Chris Puppione, asked the girls to forget about the past. Live in the moment. Live for each other. Think about what can happen, as opposed to what has happened. Look for that smile.

That’s when Nicastro saw Barragan’s. Nicastro knew Maria’s story. Everyone did. Yet, there Maria was, working harder than anyone else, enduring debilitating pain in her shins. Maria won the 800 at SCLs the year before. She was always thought to be a cut above everyone else. But what would happen if I worked that hard, Nicastro thought to herself?

“I mean, at the beginning of the season,” Nicastro said, “I couldn’t do one push-up! I’m serious.”

Ah, what the heck, Nicastro thought. Coach Pupp is telling us we can be good, we can be champions, but we have to put in the work. Look what Maria is doing! Aw, OK, why not, Nicastro concluded.

“Last year, if I showed up for practice,” Nicastro said, “I’d run a lap and then go home.”

Not anymore. Nicastro followed Barragan’s workouts and work habits, listening to Puppione praising and prodding them. Another girl watched, liked what she saw, and joined in the commitment. And another followed. And another. And another. Until the whole team — all 12 of them! — followed Barragan like she was a Pied Piper.

Healdsburg had not won a dual meet in 2012. Healdsburg won every dual meet in 2013. The team finished fourth at SCLs in 2012. The team won it all last Saturday, 34 points ahead of Petaluma.

Nicastro — who couldn’t do a push-up in December — won the 400 and finished second in the high jump, pole vault and 200. Schaffner was second in the 300 hurdles and was a member on the two winning relay teams. Helen Ann Haun won the pole vault and high jump, was fourth in the triple jump. Barragan won the 200, 800 and was part of a winning relay team. Devyn Ruiz won the long jump and triple jump and finished second in the 100 hurdles.

“And Maria would come running by during the meet,” Nicastro said, “and yell out, ‘Keep going!’”

Why is that important? Barragan was cheering on her teammates, while ignoring the pain of the scar tissue that has formed over the years in her shins. The kind of crippling pain that shuts down the body, eliminates every single thought. Since January, two Healdsburg doctors — chiropractor Dave Molencupp and physical therapist Mark Archambault — have worked on Barragan at least twice a week every week.

“They agreed to do it pro bono,” Puppione said.

A primary course of treatment was the Graston Technique, where a stainless steel instrument shaped a bit like a butter knife is moved back and forth over the affected area. Scar tissue can be, and in Barragan’s case is, chronic soft tissue damage. The Graston Technique loosens the tissue, increases blood flow and promotes healing. It can also cause one to raise a suffering voice.

That’s why the Healdsburg girls admire Barragan. She doesn’t complain, wouldn’t think of it. Because Barragan said her mother doesn’t complain “and she works much harder than me.”

“It’s funny to see Maria standing next to someone before the race,” Schaffner said. “You can see her competitor’s reaction. She’s so soft-spoken, so gentle, they ignore her. They don’t even think of her as a threat. Until the gun goes off and then she runs past them.”

More interestingly is Barragan’s reaction to someone who gets in her grill before a race and tells her she’s got no chance of winning.

Barragan’s reaction?

“I tell them I am sorry,” Barragan said.

They look puzzled. They don’t get it. Barragan is saying she’s sorry that they have to resort to such insulting things and that, sorry, but from where I have come from and gone through, this is not intimidating.

“I’m going to visit her in Sacramento next fall and watch her run,” Nicastro said.

Run? In college?

“Yeah, Maria is going to Sac State on a track scholarship,” Nicastro said.

“Are you really?” I asked her.

“Yes,” Barragan said softly.

Forty-five minutes have passed and someone else revealed Barragan is going to college on a track scholarship? She is my new definition of humble.

Barragan feels like an old soul, someone who has seen much, felt much, remembers much, and applies the right perspective to all of it. She’s only 17 but she is older. Life certainly has contributed to that.

“I wish my dad could be here to see this,” said Barragan of the man she hasn’t seen in eight years.


“Because,” Maria Barragan said, “he could see what he’s missing.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or

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