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A NEW START : Barrett Rebuilds Life With Softball After Car Accident Shortens Swimming Career

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Swimming saved the life of Toni Barrett; softball slowly pieced it back together.

For Barrett, 26, a promising swimming career came to screeching halt more than six years ago when the car she was driving was broadsided at a Huntington Beach intersection, crushing her left side and destroying her dreams of swimming at a major university.

Three others in the car suffered only scrapes and cuts, but Barrett survived mainly because of her swimming background, doctors said.

“My lungs were very developed from swimming,” said Barrett, who swam and played softball at Marina High School before continuing with a successful swimming career at Orange Coast College.

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“Doctors told me that anyone else would not have been able to live through it.”

Six ribs and half a lung were taken out of Barrett’s body in 10 1/2 hours of emergency surgery on that New Year’s Day in 1983, the day before her 20th birthday.

But perhaps even more painfully, her dreams of a swimming scholarship at a major university were snatched from her grasp.

She spent the next 17 days in a hospital as her chances of earning a scholarship slowly sank along with her second and final swimming season at Orange Coast College.

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In 1986, she attempted to swim competitively again at OCC, but her lungs didn’t have the capacity to keep her going.

“I just couldn’t do it,” Barrett said. “That was a big letdown.”

Such a big letdown that she decided to end her athletic career.

“I was really determined to not do anything,” Barrett said. “I was always whining. I was in a slump, I guess you could say.”

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That continued about two years until a friend talked to her about playing softball again, which eventually turned around her life.

“I finally overcame the fact that I was in an accident,” Barrett said. “I just decided to try to play it.”

So she took her fragile body out to the Golden West College softball diamond, where Coach Betsy Ward, Barrett’s coach at Marina High School, welcomed her aboard.

During the 1988 season, she batted .348 and had a .980 fielding percentage at first base en route to becoming an All-Orange Empire Conference selection.

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This season, her hitting has dropped off. She’s batting .215 as the Rustlers (15-12 overall, 5-7 in conference play) are vying for the third and final playoff spot.

She’s not complaining, however.

“She never complains,” Ward said. “She never says that she’s sore or hurt. You can see the pain in her face when she swings hard, but she doesn’t say anything.

“The girls new to the team didn’t know she had been in an accident and had been left with half a body. When they found out, they said, ‘God, look at how hard she works.’ ”

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She doesn’t have trouble running the bases and playing the field, but her reduced lung capacity limits her endurance running in practice.

Despite her slump at the plate, Barrett’s work habits and fielding have not suffered.

“We get a lot of lead outs because she comes up and fields bunts so well,” Ward said.

“She could play anywhere. She’s even tried third base and she’s a super outfielder, but first base is where she has her experience.”

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She probably could play other sports, but is content with softball.

“I still swim for fun,” Barrett said. “I like to play all sports, but softball is for me right now.”

Barrett still has to be careful, though.

Doctors pulled out fragments of what amounted to six ribs during the emergency surgery the day of the accident. The rest of the ribs were wired together as a makeshift rib cage.

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Four years ago, she fell off a skateboard and fractured a few ribs. Two years ago, she fractured ribs while swinging the bat and surgery followed to remove a piece of rib growing the wrong way.

But, for the most part, her return to softball has been smooth.

“In the beginning, it was really hard,” Barrett said. “But I’m in better shape now. It doesn’t bother me.

“I was always very athletic. I don’t think I would have been able to accept not playing anymore.”

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Playing softball seems to have been her best cure.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to pity me,” Barrett said. “There’s nothing really to pity me about. Maybe they can say it’s great that I’m playing. But it’s over. I don’t really feel like hearing that there’s anything wrong with me.

“I feel I could play any sport I wanted to, but softball is a sport I’ve played all my life.”

And first base is where she wants to stay at least for the rest of this season.

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After that, who knows?

Barrett might go on to a four-year college to continue with softball or she might attend nursing school.

“You see how some nurses treat you and you want to be able to help out,” Barrett said. “I’ve been through so much, maybe I could help the patients a little.”


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