TAMPA — It was meteorological irony at its finest. Amid rain, wind and an early March chill, Casey Garber had his day in the sun.
In the 1,600-meter run at the Wildcat Fast Times Invitational at Wesley Chapel, Garber passed two others to avoid last place. One was caught on the backstretch of the second lap, the other between Laps 2 and 3.
"It felt good," the Gaither sophomore said softly, the words sifting through his orthodontic retainer. "I was going faster on the fourth lap than I was before."
If you were among the brave souls who weathered the entirety of that waterlogged meet, Garber might have caught your eye. His knees were bent slightly inward as he ran, and his strides were abbreviated. From a distance, it might have appeared as if he were running on tiptoe.
That mild case of cerebral palsy, his dad explains, has resulted in some nerve damage.
Funny, it never damaged his nerve.
Instead of wrestling with his condition, Casey James Garber just, well, wrestles. He also runs track and swims for Gaither.
"I want to make new friends," he said. "I like competing, and I just want to stay active. That's it."
Well, not entirely. Casey wakeboards, maintains a 3.2 grade point average, works at a local supermarket and YMCA, and periodically inspires.
"Even though he's got some kind of disability — I'm not sure what he has — he's still out here trying, doing everything," Cowboys senior sprinter Brian Tabor said.
"He still works out with us in practice. … He's out here every day. He'll go out on mile runs with the distance guys and he'll be one of the last people to come (back), but he goes out and still does it."
In an obstetrical sense, the skinny kid with the brown bangs emerged from the blocks early. Too early, in fact.
Casey weighed 3 pounds, 10 ounces when he arrived 10 weeks prematurely at Plantation General Hospital on March 19, 1992. He remained hospitalized roughly five weeks, his dad says, and was diagnosed with a mild case of cerebral palsy, which is caused by damage to the motor control centers of a young, developing brain.
"Ironically, of our three kids, he's definitely got the strongest immune system and strongest resistance to being sick," Craig Garber said.
What he doesn't have are nerves that fire in the same sequence to certain parts of his body as a non-CP person, Craig said. The result: an abnormal style of walking and running (mostly on tiptoe) and a lower musculature that hasn't been allowed to evolve fully.
"In fact, to be honest, we got a bad diagnosis when he was a kid," said Craig, who, with wife Anne, has an older son and younger daughter.
"We took him to a doctor who was a specialist, and he said he had mild CP but would get better, but you can't get better. It's nerve damage. Fortunately, you don't get worse, but you don't get better."
Saddled with that prospect, the Garbers adopted a creed — "no limitations" — as defiant as it was succinct. In the process, Casey adopted a passion for sports.
"He always kicked a ball, threw a ball," said Craig, who publishes a monthly business/marketing newsletter from his Lutz home. "He watches SportsCenter. He's a typical jock."
Pushing to the limit
Casey has played tennis and soccer and even earned a brown belt in martial arts while still living in South Florida. Although he responds well to occupational therapy, his dad says, he essentially blows off physical therapy because he'd rather do sports.
This school year, he has earned letters in swimming, wrestling and track.
Key word: earned.
Although Casey is unlikely to compete in Thursday's Class 4A, District 6 meet, Cowboys track coach Ladd Baldwin said he has run in a handful of races this season. Last fall, he placed 20th in the 100-yard backstroke at the 3A-4 district meet. Wrestling coach Mike Santos confirms Casey won at least two matches this year, maybe more.
"I never held him back. On the contrary, I try to push him to the limit every time to see where his limit is," said Santos, who watched several prospective wrestlers quit the torturous preseason conditioning Casey finished.
"I don't think in his mind there's any limitations to what he can do. He'll try at least. That's incredible in itself."
Athletically, Casey's weaknesses fluctuate with the seasons. In swimming and track, he struggles to generate speed and power with his legs. Craig says his son "wants his legs to go, but they won't go because of that maladaptation of his body."
In wrestling, "his big struggle comes on top because when you're in the neutral position, he lacks a little bit of balance in comparison to other guys," said Santos, who won a 103-pound state title at Leto in 1995. "Even if he doesn't get the takedowns, he'll fight the whole six minutes. … That's half the battle right there."
Thing is, Casey wants to wage the other half. Otherwise, finishing last wouldn't encourage him to get faster, as he says it does. Today, he persists. Tomorrow, he'd like to prevail.
Coaches say he can.
"I was not the most physically talented guy in the world. I just worked harder. That's what I see Casey being able to do," said Gaither distance coach Bill Jenkins, a former standout runner at the University of Alabama. "He'll get out there and he'll work his butt off, and it's going to pay off."
To mom and dad, that still might not top the emotional dividends.
"There's a big difference between being different voluntarily and being different nonvoluntarily. (The latter) doesn't feel so good," Craig said.
"So to see he goes out there and doesn't not feel so good … makes us feel wonderful. It brings tears to my eyes every time I see him finish a race, because he's dead last and he's always kicking butt, giving 110 percent."
Joey Knight can be reached at (813) 226-3350 or email@example.com.