Many teenagers dream of the day that they can finally leave home, escape the daily rigors and pressures of high school and embark on their own lives.
This can be especially true in Santa Ana, Calif., one of the most densely populated cities in the United States. Like many cities in Orange County, Santa Ana has two distinct socioeconomic classes. Those fortunate enough attend private schools and live a life of relative luxury, while others toil in overcrowded, gang-infested neighborhoods.
Juan Paredes – a senior on the UCSB cross country team – found himself mired in the latter group. To escape from the trouble he knew could find himself in Santa Ana, he did the one thing he was best at – he ran away.
Not “ran away” in a literal sense, but the promise of going to college and carving out a better life for himself inspired his endurance training and allowed him to find success – first at Santa Ana High School, and now at UC Santa Barbara.
“Growing up, gunshots and police sirens were the norm for me,” he said. “Running was a way to get out because it kept me out of trouble, kept me focused, and kept me goal-oriented. Running was extremely important to me in my formative years.”
While Paredes was a proficient cross country athlete from the start, he did not excel in the classroom. It required an epiphany for him to realize that it takes more than athletic ability to reach – and succeed at – the next level.
“My first two years of high school were pretty bad… barely eligible, barely passing my classes,” he said. “Then it clicked that I wanted to go to a four year college, to run Division I, and to get out of Santa Ana, which really forced me to work harder in school and track.”
Once he got to UCSB, Paredes saw just how far he had to climb to reach the level of his teammates.
“I’ve improved a lot from high school, when I didn’t train as hard as others did,” reflected Paredes. “I was on the conservative side in high school, but once I came to college I was running big miles, running harder workouts, and improving quickly.”
That improvement manifested itself in a number of impressive finishes for Paredes, including a 16th-place finish at the 2011 Big West Championship and a 22nd-place finish at the prestigious Stanford Invitational.
Despite that success, Paredes says that we have yet to see the best of him.
“I still am getting better little by little, so I expect some big improvements this coming fall.”
“I’ve never been very vocal, but this year I have been trying to do that as well as lead by example,” he said. “The underclassmen look up to us, and that is why I have become more vocal.”
Another area of improvement for him has been in academics. Paredes admitted to going through the motions in high school, getting grades that were just good enough and not finding interest in the subject matter.
An environmental studies major at UCSB, Paredes has found a new discipline that both interests him and is applicable to his future life goals.
“As an environmental studies major, I have been focusing on urban planning. Coming from an urban area, these things really interest me.”
Even if he succeeds in all his personal endeavors, Paredes will not be satisfied just yet. He looks forward to taking his newfound leadership and urban planning skills back home and sharing them with others.
“I would like to go back to Santa Ana,” he smiled. “Get my story out, and get kids to work harder and reach their goals.”