The sun leaned heavy on the Gulf High School stadium where the track and field team rounded the track. The black asphalt beat back. Two girls ebbed their pace for a teammate, who was plugging along at half their speed. The tie in her ponytail barely reached the tops of their thighs.
At 3 feet 4, one orbit of the quarter-mile track seems closer to half a mile for Tara Goodrich. Her 100-meter dash feels more like 200. As a rule of thumb, distances and times for her are multiplied by two.
The competition towers. Sometimes it hurts to run. She'll likely never win a race.
That's all swept aside at practice. Before Tara got on the track, coach Chad Stoneking took a knee beside her. Sometimes, she slows down at the end of those 100 long meters. That day, he wanted her to practice running through the finish line.
She positioned herself in the lane. Tightened her ponytail. Then she was off, her children's size 121/2 Nikes clopping double-time. Her face showed she was pushing. Getting past that line. Breaking through.
She's used to it.
• • •
It started when she was 2 months old. Tara was riding in her car seat when her head slumped forward and she started choking on her formula. Her face went blue.
She was airlifted to All Children's Hospital. She was fine. But doctors found that her neck was straining in proportion to the weight of her head. That's when one doctor made the observation to Tara's mother, Linda Spence.
Tara's a little person.
That's the preferred term for people who have dwarfism, a genetic condition that causes small stature. Tara's actually been growing about an inch a year.
Still, at least six hours of her day at Gulf High in New Port Richey is an obstacle course.
In the massive, two-story school, she takes a ramp to her classes. Each stair to her would be like trying to climb two or three at a time for other students.
On the door to the girls locker room, there are two handles. One at regular height. The other is about 2 feet lower — installed specially for her. She jokes that there should be a plaque beside it with her name.
Other than that, Tara doesn't want to be treated differently.
"I'm a different size," she said, "but I can do all the same things (other students) can."
She's popular at school — especially for an underclassman.
In the cafeteria, she files into the senior lunch line and sits with them at the lunch table, too.
"Everyone knows Tara," her mother says.
But sometimes, away from campus, she meets the ignorant ones. The starers, the pointers, the people who don't see the tears afterward.
Most recently, it happened at a Walmart. She was walking down an aisle when a man rounded the corner.
"Oh (expletive)!" he said as though he'd been caught off-guard. "A midget."
That's the word you don't say. She calls it the "M word."
Children who say it and don't know any better are one thing, she said. "But if it's a teenager or an adult, it bothers me."
Tara doesn't want sympathy, either. She wants to be treated like what she is: a 15-year-old girl.
She picks clothes meticulously. Her world is one of provisions.
She took a little black dress — skimpy on an average-sized girl — and wore it as a formal gown to the homecoming dance.
"You have to think out of the box," her mother said.
Maybe in the box.
Lining the walls of Tara's room is a row of cardboard boxes. Their lids topped with brushes, hair ties and nail polish. This is where she keeps her clothes. Dressers are too tall.
• • •
Her decision to start running came when she was in eighth grade. She wanted something to do in the afternoon when school let out. A friend suggested she try track.
She met new friends, got into shape, found a certain challenge.
On the track, Tara doesn't look to see who's in the other lane. She has one competitor: herself.
Most girls run the 100-meter dash in about 14 seconds. Tara's time is usually double that. This year, she started making the dash in under 30 seconds, a milestone.
That's what Tara goes for. It's known to runners as their "PR" or personal record. She comes in last in every race, but when she breaks her PR, her coach says, she has a face like she was the first to cross the finish line.
• • •
She set a record last Tuesday at the Mitchell High meet: 29.3 seconds.
On Friday, at Anclote High in Holiday, she was looking to do it again.
Before the meet, Tara was piled under a tent, out of the sun, with the rest of the team. In the green No. 17 jersey, she lay on her stomach, joking with friends. At 2 p.m., she was up. Hands on hips, she rallied her teammates, LaQuenta Bastian and Catie Greene, for the 100-meter.
On the track, she hung with the girls at the sound of the pistol. Then the gap grew and grew until she was running alone.
Her eyes were toward the ground. It helps her concentrate, she said. The whoops and shouts for the girls ahead died down as they streamed through the finish.
But then the applause rose again. Several members of the crowd stood as the tiny green jersey passed, slow but steady.
"Good job, Tara!" one girl shouted.
A few minutes later, Tara and her friends were gathered around a concession stand wall, waiting for their scores.
"It felt like it was 28, 29, somewhere in there," she said.
Tara saw a man carrying tape and a ream of paper. They parted their circle to let him through and he began tacking up the paper. Anxious girls surrounded him. LaQuenta finished in 13.23 seconds.
Tara stood in the middle, pointing and reading.
She shrugged and smirked.
"At least I did better than 30. That's all right."
On the way back to the tent, passersby stared. Some stopped, mid-conversation, and made snide remarks to friends.
If she noticed, Tara didn't show it.
She gathered back under the tent with her friends to eat snacks, listen to Top 40 hit songs and talk about whatever 15-year-old girls talk about.
Alex Orlando can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6247.