TAMPA — Three years from now, if all goes according to plan, University of South Florida freshman hurdler Paul Barrett will lace up his track spikes at the U.S. Olympic Trials, with a shot at competing in the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
But three years ago, such a goal was not even on the young man's mind.
"I always told myself I wanted to play (soccer) for a big team like Barcelona," Barrett said.
After all, soccer is where his heart was. At Gaither High School, he played three years on the Cowboys' varsity team, twice making the state semifinals. Sure, he dabbled in track in his first year of high school at Alonso High School, and even during his sophomore year at Gaither, but nothing "clicked," he said.
But a series of events in his high school and personal life led to the transformation of Barrett from soccer star to hurdling phenomenon.
Barrett moved to the United States when he was 11 years old, from Montego Bay, Jamaica. His living situation was anything but ideal. He first lived with his aunt while attending Davidsen Middle School in Westchase. But during his second semester, the aunt announced she was going on a short vacation — and never came back.
That led to the first of many moves for the youngster, who would live with different family members in different neighborhoods, while moving in and out of several schools over the next few years.
He finally ended up at Gaither for his sophomore year of high school, living with his grandmother, Pernel McFarlane, who had agreed to move up from Miami with her son. Though his living situation would change again, Barrett managed to remain at Gaither through graduation.
At Gaither, track coaches Jeff Ditman and Ed Moore began trying to sort out which events Barrett would be good at.
"Paul has so much God-given talent," Moore said.
But at the time, Barrett was still drawn to the soccer pitch.
"I remember you could go out on Sundays (at USF) and always play with this big group of other Jamaicans," Barrett said. "Just playing on that campus made me think I wanted to play there somewhere down the road."
But then he found success on the track. In his junior year, Barrett would become a state qualifier in the 300-meter hurdles. And he just missed qualifying for states in the 110-meter hurdles as well.
Coming into his senior year, Barrett knew that unless he had some sort of athletic scholarship offer, he might have to return to Jamaica after graduation.
He would make his mark in the 300-meter hurdles.
Barrett found himself with some new competition in hurdles, not just in his own district, but on his own team. Assistant coach Ed Moore's son, Samson, was a junior Olympic gold medalist in hurdles before he even arrived at Gaither.
But Barrett began to emerge as one of the top hurdlers in the county. He and Samson traded off at different meets — Moore would win the 110-meter hurdles and Barrett would continue to dominate the 300.
Barrett won the 300 hurdles at the large George Steinbrenner Invitational on USF's track in 2012 (39.18 seconds).
That's where he caught the eye of Bulls head track coach Warren Bye.
"He (Barrett) was just what you want in an athlete like that," Bye said. "I thought, 'we need to get this kid, we can do something with this.' "
Barrett qualified for the state track meet again in 2012, and his training with the Moores would pay off. His times kept dropping. He ran a 39-second race in districts, and a 38-second race at regionals.
"States was the best race I'd ever run," Barrett said. "I could just tell how much faster I was."
Barrett would finish in 37.29 seconds, winning the state title, and setting personal and school records in the process.
He also competed in the Golden South Classic, where high school state title winners from across the United States compete. But events there were different. There was no 300-meter hurdles, only the collegiate- and Olympic-length 400-meter hurdles, which Barrett had never run.
He responded by blowing away the field, chopping three seconds off his qualifying time and winning the race in 52.97 seconds.
"Once I hit the 52s in the 400 hurdles, USF was all over me," Barrett said.
The scholarship offer finally came in.
What makes Barrett so ideally suited to the 400m hurdles?
"The way the body processes air in a 400-meter race is different than in the shorter events," said Moore, the Gaither assistant coach. "When you run the 400 or the 400-meter hurdles, it's impossible without transitioning to your aerobic system — and that's where Paul has an advantage."
Barrett's natural ability to clear hurdles and keep his legs pumping over long distances is a testament to the skills he developed on the soccer pitch, to his own raw, athletic ability, and to his mental toughness.
As far as Barrett's Olympic dreams go, the automatic qualifying time for members of the U.S. Olympic team in 2012 was 49.50 seconds. While Barrett's personal record from Golden South (52.97) might seem far off, consider that it was only the second time he'd run the race in competition, and that he now has better coaching and Olympic-caliber athletes to train with.
Not to mention three full track seasons at USF to improve.
"I've seen him (Barrett) make great strides since he's been here," Bye said.