Track and field: Babinec finds his sweet spot
He never has met a snack cake he didn't like. If cookie dough were quality carbs, USF steeplechase specialist Michael Babinec might be an All-American.
"I'm big on sweets," the former Riverview High all-state runner said.
Former roommate Alex Hoffman, a Bulls middle-distance guy, recalls Babinec going through a Toll House tube in one sitting. Yet no sugar rush seemed intense enough to help him improve his splits in the conventional distance races, which Babinec found as bland as broccoli.
"I did the 5,000 (meters) my freshman year and it was really horrible," said Babinec, who nonetheless earned a Class 4A state medal in the 3,200 as a Sharks senior in 2012.
"I don't really care for track that much; just an oval's not that much fun to me. Cross country, I can run whatever distance. ... I couldn't break my (personal record) in the 5,000 on the track. So it kind of mentally defeated me my freshman year and I wanted to kind of switch up the pace, just because I was having a really tough time."
A year later, Babinec has found variety and his stride simultaneously. He enters Friday night's American Athletic Conference Championships ranked sixth in the league in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, which combines distance running, hurdling and even a bit of long jumping.
Competitors navigate 28 hurdles (a bit wider and more stable than normal ones) and seven water jumps during the race. Babinec's personal-best time: Nine minutes, 28.10 seconds, good enough for a victory at the Tom Jones Memorial in Gainesville on April 19.
Friday's race will be on his home track.
"I think I've definitely found where I'm stronger at now," said Babinec, who earned a 5.2 weighted GPA -- and Eagle Scout status -- as a Riverview senior.
"I definitely focus more on squats, lunges and things like that, because the race itself is more of a muscular burn than an actual cardio burn."
It's far more nuanced as well. Babinec, eighth at the AAC men's cross country meet last fall, said he had to acclimate himself to settling for a slower split than on a conventional 400-meter lap. There also was the matter of navigating a hurdle in a crowd of runners, occasionally using more of the curve, and maintaining stride while splashing across water.
For the Bulls' resident sweet tooth, it's an event steeped in as much irony as endurance.
The steeplechase is definitely no cupcake. Yet Babinec, who still sleeps with his hot-pink Nike spikes the night before a race, said he couldn't be more content.
"I absolutely love where I'm at right now," said Babinec, a computer-engineering major.
"My coach (Dena Reif) is extremely understanding of everything that I do, on and off the track. She pushes me and I do have the scholarship that I had in mind for myself (in high school) and it's gone up over the years so I'm really happy with that. I absolutely love it here."
American Athletic Conference Championships
Where: USF Track and Field Stadium
When: Friday-Sunday. (Full schedule can be found here)
Admission: $4 adults, $2 students and seniors
Parking: Free in Lot 17B (west of stadium, across USF Maple Street)
Live streaming: American Digital Network