An Unlikely Partnership

by Micah McDaniel

It is a cool, overcast December afternoon as Paulo Sandoval approaches the runway. Full speed ahead he goes, before gently slowing down and heaving another javelin toward the 50-yard line. One down, another 20 to 25 more throws to go, and it is just another typical Thursday afternoon at the Azusa Pacific track.

Under the watchful eye of Azusa Pacific women’s track and field coach Mike Barnett ’97, M.Ed. ’01, who offers his anecdotal wisdom and aged experience, Sandoval takes it all in with a willing smile and an eagerness for the next toss. Sandoval is an elite javelin thrower for his age, and he has the potential to etch his name among the Cougar track and field greats, joining the likes of Dave Johnson ’86, M.A. ’02; Christian Okoye ’87; the Ezinwa twins (Osmond ’94 and Davidson ’94); and Bryan Clay ’03. However, that must wait until 2012, because Sandoval is still in eighth grade.

After taking in Barnett’s words of constructive criticism and coaching tweaks on the previous hurl, the Azusa resident retreats to his starting point, takes a deep breath, and proceeds once more.

Just four months shy of his 14th birthday, Sandoval has found a new home – Cougar Athletic Stadium. He has found a new mentor in Barnett. And he has found a new member of his already tight-knit Azusa family in the Cougars’ nationally renowned track and field team. For the past year, Sandoval has headed to the Cougars’ track every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, rarely missing a day, to train with the best. After all, he is one of the best.

Last August, at 13, Sandoval finished fourth in the javelin in his age group (13-14) at the U.S. Junior National Championships in Baltimore, Maryland. The three that finished ahead of him were all 14-year-olds. However, Sandoval is quick to point out that there was only one reason he was able to throw as well as he did.

“To know that [Barnett] is coaching me and he’s been to the Olympics is pretty cool,” said Sandoval. “I look up to him as my role model. He called me at last year’s championships and told me that he was in my shoes once, competing against older, bigger, and stronger guys. He told me to relax and just throw it as far as I could.”

Barnett and Sandoval first met in November 2005, when Sandoval was in seventh grade at Center Middle School in Azusa. His elementary track coach Adrian Acosta, who started Sandoval throwing the turbo javelin, found Barnett after searching the Azusa Pacific website. He had been looking for someone to give Sandoval some high-level, personal attention, and thought Barnett would be just the man for the job.Once he responded and met Sandoval, it was a perfect match.

“As a university, we place a high importance on mentorship and that was the initial reason why I started this relationship,” said Barnett. “I thought it was a great idea and an opportunity to give back to the community.”

So Sandoval began coming to the track twice a week to work out with the team. Some days he would walk. Other days, his parents or brothers would bring him. Nonetheless, he was always there. At first, it started out as strictly a coach/athlete relationship but has since blossomed into a mentor/mentee relationship.

“He’s a local kid, from the city, who has talent,” said Barnett. “Within the framework of the C.H.A.M.P. [College Headed and Mighty Proud] Program we have at APU, I can help him understand that a college is a viable option for him. It’s got him thinking now, and he wants to be an architect. I’d love to get him believing enough in himself that with his athletic ability combined with his academics, he will be able to go to college wherever he wants.”

Prior to meeting Barnett, Sandoval, the fifth of six children, had no thought of attending college.

“Originally, I just wanted to give him the hope that he can go to college,” said Barnett. “When we first talked, he didn’t see the realistic possibility of being able to afford it. I began to show him that there is money available to him between academics, athletics, and other financial aid resources. College is definitely a priority, a hope, and a dream that is achievable. Suddenly, the conversation turned and now he wants to go to college. I just wanted that desire to get sparked within him and let it catch fire.”

“We talk about staying on top of my studies and about going to college one day,” said Sandoval. “I didn’t think I would even be able to go, but we started talking about scholarships and I now see that college is possible. Coach has been an inspiration to me.”

Next year, Sandoval will attend Gladstone High School as a freshman. Because there is no high school javelin in this area, he will continue to compete on the junior circuit and train with Barnett and the Cougars. Barnett sees great potential for Sandoval to be an elite javelin thrower.

“Paulo’s got a cannon,” said Barnett. “We just need to work on him not spraying it all over the field. That will come as he gets stronger and bigger. He has a bright future; I would love to see him get to the next level.

“He’s got a group of people around him that’s going to help make him successful. I’m just a little part of that. He loves coming out here, and we consider him a part of our team. He even came to our Christmas party. Paulo’s the complete package, and it is a joy to be involved in his life.”

Micah McDaniel is a freelance writer who lives in Lake Elsinore, California. [email protected]