University of Toledo; Handout no Enlarge
Every stride Adam Bernal takes, his left leg aches from the pounding.
Bernal, a senior cross country runner for the University of Toledo, has a stress fracture in his leg that doctors say needs a steel rod insertion to help heal it.
Most people would find the pain unbearable over the course of an 8-kilometer race. But after going through two tours in a war zone, a college transfer and a mountain of NCAA red tape, Bernal is just happy to run a race with a "T" across his chest.
For six years, Bernal has been a member of the 200th Red Horse Squadron Air National Guard based in Port Clinton and has gone to Iraq twice. Even in 115-degree heat in the Middle East, he ran 15 miles a week when sandstorms and security threats were not a factor.
From Findlay, Bernal began the year running on borrowed time, courtesy of an NCAA waiver granting him a year he had missed out on because he was serving the country.
That waiver would not extend another season for a medical redshirt after Bernal hurt his leg. He decided to compete anyway, practicing a reduced amount. The Rockets travel this weekend to Mount Pleasant, Mich., for the Mid-American Conference championships.
"This being my last year, I figured I would suck it up and push through the pain," Bernal said.
Bernal, 24, began college at Anderson University in Indiana in 2001. He ran cross country at the Division III school and had a successful freshman season, named to the all-conference team. But rather than go into debt while attending the private college, Bernal opted to join the Air National Guard so he could get his education paid for.
After a year of guard training, Bernal enrolled at UT and met cross country coach Kevin Hadsell, who welcomed him into the program. Bernal had to sit out a year because of NCAA rules. Just as he became eligible in 2003, Bernal's unit was called to Iraq.
"I didn't find out I was going overseas until I had already put all the summer training in," he said.
Bernal spent some of his time there searching Iraqi supply vehicles that entered his compound for improvised explosive devices. He was able to re-enroll in school and rejoin the team last fall.
The time Bernal was able to spend training in the off-season after last year has allowed him to greatly improve despite his injury, Hadsell said. Bernal has been one of the Rockets' top performers and was UT's highest finisher at the Falcon Invitational two weeks ago.
Hadsell chose Bernal as captain this year and said he thinks Bernal has been one of the best leaders in the history of the program. Morning practices are normally optional, but Bernal made the 6:15 a.m. workouts several times a week mandatory for the men's squad.
"It's pretty obvious he's a natural leader," Hadsell said. "Having all that experience in the military, he has a true sense of what it means to be dedicated to something."
Bernal, a constructional engineering technology major, was offered an officer position with the 200th Red Horse Squadron and has already decided to re-enlist after he graduates next fall. He believes he will go back to Iraq.
But for now, he's enjoying being a college student-athlete. On Sunday most of the Rockets shaved their hair into Mohawks as a sign of solidarity heading into the conference championships.
"It's fun being around something that you love so much, and everybody else feels the same way about it," Bernal said.
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