Tessa Barrett was sad to see 2013 go.
There wasn’t much more that could have worked out any better that calendar year for Barrett, as the Abington Heights senior distance runner can proudly say she was the best high school female runner in the country.
On December 14, a stellar performance against an elite field enabled Barrett to win the Foot Locker National Championship race in San Diego, Calif., ending a year in which she tasted nothing but success.
“The whole year, start to finish, has been great,” Barrett said. “There are always bumps to overcome, but I was blessed to have had such a good year.”
Tack on being named the female winner of the Gatorade runner of the year for Pennsylvania, and it’s all heady stuff for the Penn State-bound Barrett.
“I’d heard of it. I’m really humbled and honored to receive it,” she said. “It’s a great accolade, ending the [cross country] season on a cool note.”
A few years back, achieving all of these honors seemed out of reach for Barrett, who was just worried about being healthy for her high school days. Being a state champion, a national champion and good enough for powerhouse running programs like Villanova and Georgetown to pursue her could have been squashed by her health.
“It took awhile to figure out what I had,” Barrett said. “I was diagnosed with epilepsy in middle school. A lot of kids grow out of it, and I did.”
Her battle with juvenile myoclonic epilepsy had ended but the worst was not over.
“But I grew into a variant of it, migralepsy, which is very rare and unique,” Barrett said. “I was getting migraine headaches, which trigger epilepsy seizures. I was having 100 small seizures a day.”
The disease caused her to leave Scranton Prep and study from home.
“The biggest thing is the florescent lighting [which can trigger migraine headaches],” Barrett said. “I can’t go to the mall, supermarkets, gymnasiums and school.”
Thankfully, she has been able to keep her disease under control, but she admits that it has not been easy.
“There are so many side effects of the drugs,” Barrett said. “It’s still difficult; there are times when I have to go up on the dose for awhile.
“But I haven’t had a seizure for a year and a half now; but if the medicine isn’t the proper dosage, I could have one.”
It is still a cause for concern, and Barrett is hopeful that the time she spends at Penn State goes by uneventfully as she pursues a degree in psychology.
“I got accepted by the school of liberal arts, which has a lot of older buildings, meaning fewer florescent lights,” Barrett said. “I can handle the florescent lights one or two times a week; but it’s something I have to be aware of. It can still be a struggle.”
That she has been able to overcome her disease just to be back running is amazing, let alone being able to become among the upper echelon in the country is all the more remarkable.
“I was really ill. This disease has plagued me throughout my whole teenage years,” Barrett said. “I’m still battling, but it has made me a stronger person, and a stronger runner. I knew it would be difficult, but now running doesn’t seem as hard.”
Her junior year running for Abington Heights was outstanding, until she suffered a hairline fracture of her femur during the District 2 Class AAA Championships at Elk Lake in 2012. This time, once the physical injury healed, she was off and running, mixing in land training as well as training in a pool to lessen the stress on her injured leg.
After placing second in the state Class AAA 3200-meter run in May, she set her sights on her senior cross country season. She delivered, setting course records every time she ran, claiming the District 2 and a 36-second win in the state meet.
“I was able to stay healthy, train hard and run hard,” Barrett said. “I was glad to make it through the season healthy and happy.”
Her state title win qualified her for the Foot Locker Northeast Regional, another race she ran, which set her up for the national title event in San Diego.
She arrived in California devoid of pressure, looking forward to run with some of the other top high school runners in the country. Little did she know she would emerge as the best one of them all.
“Making nationals was great,” Barrett said. “I just went out to enjoy the experience, soak up some sun.”
Going out without much of a plan, just to run to her strengths, particularly on the hills, Barrett ran a comfortable pace before taking the lead about midway into the 3.1-mile (5,000 meters). Charging down the final hill, she crossed the finish line in 17:15.4 to claim the title.
“There wasn’t a ton of strategy. I didn’t know the competition,” Barrett said. “Looking back on it, it was one of my best races.”
The thought of being a national champion overwhelms Barrett at times.
“It’s a lot to soak in,” Barrett said. “It’s been surreal.”
“I just want to keep going and be happy,” she added. “To have accomplished what I have, I am so thrilled. To end my senior cross country season on that race is just wild.”