Perched high on the north bleachers at the Birmingham High track stadium, Peter Paplanus peers at the activity below through trendy, plastic sunglasses.

Paplanus, one of the region's top quarter-milers last season as a senior at Calabasas High, spots his sister Mera, 13, across the field. She's about to race three girls in the 100-meter dash.

The scene resembles more a father watching his daughter, for at times Paplanus has been brother and father to Mera and their brother Michael.

All were born with physical problems to different drug-addicted mothers and all were adopted by Gail Paplanus, an outgoing former emergency-room nurse who does not mince words.

At this all-comers meet on a breezy summer evening, she's watching Mera from several rows below Peter.

"I'm going to time her," Peter says as Mera ambles to the starting line.

The starter fires the gun and the girls take off, with Mera quickly falling behind but running her hardest to the finish line.

"Uh, oh," Paplanus says, looking at his combination wristwatch-chronometer and laughing. "I pressed the wrong button."


Life has not always been a barrel of laughs for Paplanus.

He was born in Tarzana in 1979 to a 15-year-old heroin addict who immediately turned him over to Gail. The girl died from an overdose two years later.

"My [former] husband and I had a friend who kept hiring nannies who didn't say they were pregnant when they came from Mexico," Gail said. "This girl was seven months pregnant and wanted an abortion.

"I told her there was no way she could do that legally in this country and she should consider [giving the baby up] for adoption.

"The night Peter was born, she had taken so much heroin she was punching herself in the stomach, so they called the police and they took her to the hospital."

Peter, who weighed 6 pounds 5 ounces, spent three days on a respirator and eventually was sent home to Simi Valley.

"The pediatrician said he was severely retarded and not to take him home," Gail said.

It didn't take long for her to notice Peter wasn't reacting like other newborns.

Tests showed Peter couldn't hear because of an inner-ear condition that was corrected by surgery. At 3, he had 10% vision in his right eye and has struggled for years with attention deficit disorder, much of it the byproduct of his mother's drug habit.

"He was always banging into things because he was always running but steering to his right all the time," Gail said.

By age 5, Peter was trying to steer around two newcomers to the household. Gail, partly persuaded by nursing friends, rescued two other physically impaired babies: Michael, who is autistic, and Mera, who was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and is dyslexic.

But Peter's already difficult childhood became considerably more trying when he was 8 and Gail was diagnosed with ovarian cancer.

"My husband left immediately," said Gail, 52. "I had surgery and I had to tell Peter he would have to be father and mother. My father came out from Philadelphia to help out, but he was an old man and Peter had to help him with the little kids."

Gail lost the house and lived with the children in a truck for three months, spending some of her disability benefits to pay for camp sites at night and for day camp for the kids while she underwent chemotherapy.

"It was like a camping trip," Peter said. "It was fun."


Even from a young age, Paplanus proved a gifted athlete.

He first played soccer, using quickness to compensate for lack of size, but quit after one particularly bruising game.

There was no chance of getting pummeled in track and Paplanus had shown promise in the sport, so he gave it a try.

"When I was in elementary school, I was faster than anyone else," he said. "One day we had the school Olympics and I did well, and I got involved in track after that."

It paid off, but it wasn't easy.

After competing in countless youth meets, Paplanus enrolled at Calabasas in 1995. Gail had married Frank Paplanus four years earlier and moved with the children to his house in Bell Canyon.

Paplanus ran cross-country for four years and track for three at Calabasas, winning Frontier League titles in the 400 meters and long jump the past three seasons, and the 200 last season.

He placed second in the 400 at the Ventura County championships in May with a career-best 48.72 seconds, and he finished third at the Southern Section Division III championships.

"When he first came to me, there were some attitude problems," Calabasas track Coach Ken Kennett said. "But he learned. He's a different person now. He has adapted and become stronger as time went by. If there's a problem, Peter will work his way through it one way or another."

Not only on the track, but also in the classroom.

Paplanus, who is taking calculus and golf classes at Moorpark College, labored through special education courses at Calabasas.

Although glasses have improved the vision in his right eye to 50%, Paplanus needs occasional help and was given an enlarged answer sheet when he took the SAT. He prefers to run without glasses.

Paplanus had a 3.2 grade-point average during the fall semester but dropped to 2.9 in the spring.

"I had senioritis," he said.


To Gail, the obstacles Peter tries to overcome are magnified by his role at home.

"More than himself, his disability has been his brother and sister," she said. "Peter has been the one who has helped keep Michael at home."

Michael, 13, often becomes violent, requiring Peter to restrain him. Mera also requires constant attention.

"I've grown up a little faster because I've had to take some responsibilities that kids my age normally don't have," Paplanus said.

Soon, that might include moving to college. He recently bought a car with money received at his bar mitzvah and is hoping to earn a track scholarship after attending Moorpark, where he might step up to the 800.

That distance, Paplanus said, is better suited for his 5-foot-6 frame. He'll make a test run at an all-comers meet Wednesday at Birmingham.

"That's one of the things I've been trying to convince him of for the last two years," Kennett said. "He's got 400 speed, but his strength should be the 800."

Paplanus wonders if his running ability was inherited. His maternal grandmother was a Native American whose family moved to Mexico, where she married a Mexican Indian from a family that reportedly produced accomplished runners.

"I want to know where I came from," Paplanus said. "My mom and I have talked about both of us going [to Mexico] some day."

Until then, he'll hold on to a verse from a poem he wrote last year for an English class:

I celebrate being who I am,

Just three years before a new century.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World