LUTZ — In a couple of months, Plant cross country captain Trenor Wilkins will depart for New Zealand, where he'll spend roughly six months in a foreign-exchange program, perhaps run a marathon and indulge his passion for exploring foreign locales.
"I'm really excited," he said. "It's like, my thing: running and traveling."
It will be only the second-most bizarre journey of his senior year. While his distance-running contemporaries have spent months reaching the cross country postseason on foot, Wilkins, a region champion as a junior, essentially has gotten there by water.
Diagnosed with stress fractures in both shins at the dawn of the season, Wilkins joined Plant's swim team to maintain his endurance while his injuries healed. Now cleared for running again, he'll enter next week's Class 4A, District 4 meet with greater perspective, if not buoyancy.
"Last year I wanted my team to do well, but I was also ambitious," said Wilkins, who made his 2009 running debut with an 11th-place finish (17 minutes, eight seconds) at Tuesday's Hillsborough County Championships. "I wanted to go for a school record, I wanted to win districts, I wanted to win regionals. …This (year), I'm not really going for the win or anything, I'm going for the team win."
Less than three months ago, Wilkins seemed destined to challenge Chamberlain senior Mark Parrish, who won Tuesday's race, for county supremacy. He was running 70 miles a week (a total toward which he had spent four years building) with little side effect other than some calf soreness. Then during a team workout on the track, he experienced a "twingy" feeling in his left leg, similar to pain associated with the stress fracture he had sustained as a freshman.
"I went to the doctor expecting that they wouldn't find anything," said Wilkins, sixth at last season's 3A state meet. "And they gave us a call the next day and said, 'Yeah, you've got (a stress fracture) in both legs.' "
Wilkins had to quit the sport for a minimum of six weeks. The moping period was fleeting, thanks primarily to cross country coach Mike Boza. Almost immediately after hearing of the diagnosis, Boza decided his star would spend his recovery time wallowing in chlorine instead of self-pity.
He put in a call to Panthers swim coach Gil Gonzalez, who allowed Wilkins to join his squad. Gonzalez was initially reluctant because he thought he was merely taking on a rehab project. Wilkins was reluctant because he wasn't very graceful in a pool.
"I never swam in my life," Wilkins said, "but at least I knew I had endurance."
He had little else. Wilkins couldn't breathe like a swimmer, lacked form and created a small tidal wave with his flip turns. But that endurance was endearing.
"To have a swimmer swim that badly for so long is just not something we're used to," Gonzalez said. "But Trenor just kept going.
"He didn't want to be just a member of the team, he wanted to compete and he did. And he wanted to be with the top athletes, so he would put himself near the top swimmers and push himself as they did. …It took me a while to get him to breathe because he's used to not breathing in running which I find hard to believe, but finally we got him to take a breath."
Gonzalez estimated Wilkins competed in about half the Panthers' meets, usually entering two or three races per meet. Initially the 500-yard freestyle seemed ideal because of his stamina, but Plant's depth in the event resulted in him focusing on shorter races.
"I did one 500; I did horrible," Wilkins recalled. "And then I did a 50 and my goggles fell off. I definitely had some bad swim meets. It was fun though."
Now, the real fun begins. Wilkins said he experienced no pain following Tuesday's race, which he approached as a tune-up. Because cross country runners must compete in a minimum four races to be eligible for the postseason, Wilkins had to get a medical waiver to enter next week's district meet. The pain and paperwork behind him, he says qualifying for another state meet is a viable goal.
"We're feeling good," Boza said after Tuesday's race, which his team won.
"At districts we're gonna let him put his racers on; we didn't even have his racers on today. I wanted him to have a tangible reminder today that he was still training, so he wore (training shoes). We'll let him put his racers on at districts so he can see how it feels to run out to the front."
Should be more comfortable than those goggles.
4A-4 at North Port High
When: Nov. 5
Race times: Girls, 4:30; boys, 5
Local teams: Alonso, Chamberlain, Freedom, Gaither, Plant, Riverview, Tampa Bay Tech, Wharton
3A-4 at Lake Park, Lutz
When: Nov. 4
Race times: Girls, 4; boys, 4:30
Local teams: Armwood, Blake, Durant, East Bay, Hillsborough, Jefferson, King, Leto, Sickles
2A-5 at Al Lopez Park, Tampa
When: Nov. 6
Race times: Girls, 4; boys, 4:30
Local teams: Berkeley Prep, Steinbrenner, Academy of the Holy Names, Jesuit, Lennard, Middleton, Robinson, Spoto, Strawberry Crest, Tampa Catholic
A-5 at Taylor Park, St. Petersburg
When: Nov. 5
Race times: Girls, 10:15 a.m.; boys, 11
Local teams: Bayshore Christian, Cambridge Christian, Carrollwood Day, Seffner Christian, Tampa Bay Christian, Tampa Prep