TAMPA — For years, Robinson senior Bryan Garcia seemed content with being inconspicuous. During track season, he'd dabble in the mile or 2-mile, but wouldn't touch the extra mile.
Beat the pack? Garcia was fine blending with it.
"He was a guy that kind of took a backseat to everybody else on the team," Knights coach Mark Altimari said. "There were some pretty good runners at Robinson, and he just saw himself as an also guy."
Garcia's self-assessment is more succinct: "I was lazy," he said.
These days, Garcia has school records in the 1,600 and 3,200 meters, an eighth-place finish at the state cross country meet and a scholarship to the University of Tampa. Yet his transformation is steeped neither in poignancy nor profundity. His tale isn't one of caution or redemption, but gumption.
Essentially, Garcia put mind over mediocrity. "He just decided he wanted to be the best there was," Altimari said.
While less heralded than fellow distance standouts Mark Parrish and Max del Monte of Chamberlain, Garcia may be no less feared.
He will be a favorite in the 3,200 at the upcoming Class 2A, District 9 meet and returns to run the first leg for a Knights 4x800 relay that placed fifth in the state last season. At Tuesday's Hillsborough County championships, that 4x800 squad placed third (8 minutes, 16.11 seconds) behind Class 3A Armwood and 4A Plant.
Before that, Garcia placed eighth at last fall's 2A cross country meet in a personal-best 15:58.07. Before that, he was another face behind the frontrunners.
An 800-meter runner in middle school, Garcia stumbled upon track after a disastrous tryout for Robinson's football team as a 95-pound ninth-grade kicker, when a series of shanks sealed his fate.
He turned to distance running, but apathy — not to mention periodic panic attacks at the start of cross country races — kept him from distinguishing himself. In the winter of his junior year, between the cross country and track seasons, he estimates he ran four times.
"The first three years of high school, I was lazy," said Garcia, an only child whose great-great uncle, Alan Boone Helffrich, won a 4x400 gold medal for the United States in the 1924 Olympics.
"It wasn't just about running, either, it was kind of my mentality toward everything. I was good in school; I had good grades. But looking back, it wasn't as good as I could've done."
The turning point came last track season, when Garcia made the 4x800 relay and tasted real success. With Altimari's goading, he realized he could excel with a little initiative.
"It was all in his head," Altimari said. "It had nothing to do with anything I did. He just decided he wanted to be the best runner out there."
Over the summer, Garcia began running 60 miles a week, gradually increasing his tempo. The payoff was almost immediate. In the season's first cross country meet, the West Hillsborough Invitational at Al Lopez Park, he placed second in 16:18.
In the previous season's district meet, he failed to better 18 minutes.
"I told him: 'Bryan, you need to run every day like you're the best runner in this county. That's what it's going to take,' " Altimari recalled. "He made cross country and running his priority. You can't be a part-time runner and have full-time results. He knows that."
After an even more intense winter, Garcia has flourished this spring. He established a school record in the 1,600 (4:31.71) at the Charles Johnson Invitational at King High in mid March and set a Knights mark in the 3,200 (9:46.12) a week later at the Steinbrenner Invitational at USF.
His 4x800 squad's time Tuesday at the county meet was 2 seconds faster than its previous best effort.
"I felt before this year I was a boy who ran," Garcia said. "And now I'm a runner."