Overcoming Daze of His Life : A Former Couch Potato Hooked on Soap Operas, Steve Barnett Rededicated Himself to Track and Field and the Results Have Been Surprising

Times Staff Writer

Although he knew he should have been lifting weights in preparation for the track and field season, Steve Barnett spent countless afternoons during the fall of 1987 sprawled on a couch in his Glendale home, eating junk food, with his eyes glued to "Days of Our Lives." When the program ended, Barnett would invariably nod off and awaken long after his Glendale College teammates had finished their workout.

Barnett's obsession with soap operas was apropos--his freshman year, to that point, was a washout.

"I'd think, 'God, I'm such a bum,' " he said. " 'I'm just being lazy.' "

A point with which Glendale throwing coach Steve Gold wasn't about to argue. Barnett--by Gold's reckoning--was an enormous javelin prospect with a minuscule heart. He was the kind of athlete who relies on pure ability to tear through the high school ranks but lacks the commitment to compete at the collegiate level.

During the past year and a half, Gold has watched his original appraisal of Barnett disintegrate. Barnett's wind sprints no longer consist of jaunts to the kitchen between commercials. And when he reclines in the afternoon these days, he's probably lying down to bench press.

Barnett, a sophomore, saw his new-found dedication pay off Saturday. Despite battling a sprained ankle sustained a day earlier, and waiting for two hours in sweltering heat, Barnett finished second in the Southern California junior college preliminaries with a throw of 208 feet, 5 inches. A week earlier, in the Western State Conference finals at Bakersfield, Barnett set school and meet records with a throw of 207-6. He will throw again Saturday in the Southern California finals at Cerritos College.

Last weekend's effort placed Barnett fourth in Southern California behind Jerry Vitelli of Pasadena (215-0), Roberto Vasquez of Saddleback (211-7) and Riverside's Richard Doering (209-7).

Barnett's turnaround began in the spring of 1988 when he took an unannounced three-day hiatus from practice--not wholly out of character in light of his earlier addiction to daytime television. Barnett evaluated his priorities and decided to devote himself to the javelin.

Teammates, such as shotputter Linda Benioff, also played a role in the metamorphosis. Benioff was a self-appointed volunteer in the campaign to badger Barnett.

"I'd say, 'Steve, you're going to have to start lifting if you want to go anywhere,' " Benioff said. " 'Stop worrying about looking good. Go out there and sweat. Don't worry about messing up your hair--you can comb it later.' "

Barnett, who graduated from Hart High in Newhall before moving to Glendale to live with his mother, entered college with the intention of competing in the shotput. At Hart, he had a personal record of 55-6 1/2, good for second in the Southern Section 3-A Division championships.

Moving from the 12-pound high school shot to the collegiate 16-pounder was a difficult transition for Barnett.

"It made me feel weak," he said of the change. "I could beat people with a 12-pound shot and I could only throw the new one 40 feet. I was completely questioning my ability."

Barnett also had a tough time making friends at Glendale.

"I was popular at my high school and I come to college and I know zero people," he said. "I was in shock. I was just depressed about everything.

"If I had quit last year, I would be a mess."

But hurling the javelin for the first time was no panacea. Barnett began by launching dying quails that landed about 40 feet shy of where his throws wind up now. "He would collapse when he threw," Gold said. "Instead of standing up tall when he released, he would get down small."

Barnett found his throwing rhythm toward the end of last season and began to challenge more experienced teammates. In the 1988 conference preliminaries at Santa Barbara, Barnett qualified for the finals.

A week later, Barnett finished seventh in the Southern California finals, missing a berth in the state championships by one place.

"Honestly, I didn't even expect to get out of conference prelims and I just kept getting better and better," Barnett said. "So when I didn't make (the state championships), it was like, 'Aw, shucks.' "

Barnett says failing to make the championships this season would be far more traumatic.

Recently, he has developed a feeling of fluidity in his throws.

"It's all coming together right now," he said. "I can definitely feel a difference. I feel more coordinated and more in control of my body."

And more in control of his afternoons.

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