Pushing through the pain
Navigating the streets of Southern California is a daily challenge. Traffic is jammed. Vehicles travel suddenly at warp speeds. Commuters are rushed, impatient and distracted.
The minds of teenagers can get equally filled, attempting to unravel their young and complex lives.
Ariatna Reyes-Rivera, a junior cross-country athlete at Stern High School in Los Angeles, says running the streets and suburbs of SoCal helps unclutter all the pressures, the unknowns and even the sadness.
Even when she runs alone, she has a partner, running stride-for-stride with her. Pushing. Exalting. Inspiring.
“She’s my motivation,” Reyes-Rivera said. “I want her to see me succeed.”
She is Julia Briana Barocio, who died tragically at the age of 15 from complications to a brain tumor in 2017. Julia was Reyes-Rivera’s best friend since they attended pre-school together.
Upbeat, energetic and a high-achiever, Reyes-Rivera had few setbacks as a child, and if she did, would combat them with hard work and a positive attitude instilled by her parents Eloisa Hernandez and Adrian Reyes.
"No matter when things get tough, you have to try harder, you have to train harder. Pain is only temporary.”
“When you work hard, you can get what you want,” Reyes said.
But the passing of her best friend was a pain young Reyes-Rivera never endured before. Not internally.
“I had never seen her cry out of sadness before,” her sister Genesis Reyes said. “I’ve seen her cry out of frustration. It hurts so much to see someone you care about so much hurting so bad.”
So Reyes-Rivera used her legs and competitive edge to chase away the pain. She’s the top runner and team captain of the Stern cross-country team. She also is a 3.98 student and in the top 15 percent of her class, and a constant giver to her community.
It is why she’s been awarded the Semper Fidelis Athlete of the Month, presented by the Marines.
She’ll have the opportunity to attend the Battles Won Academy in Washington, D.C. this summer.
“I ensure that everything I do is for her,” Reyes-Rivera said. “Any time I feel like I’m going to give up on running, I just remember (Julia). She comes immediately to my mind. I know if she was here, she would be pushing me to do my best. I live out the life for both of us.”
Said Reyes, her older sister: “I felt like running helped her process everything. It gave her space to physically run away.”
Sis introduced Reyes-Rivera to cross country her freshman season at Stern. It was pretty much love at first stride.
Her mom had coached her in basketball before and dad coached her in soccer. But the regimen of running suited Reyes-Rivera perfectly.
“When Ariatna was little, she always tried to be first in everything,” Hernandez said. “I don’t know how to explain it but she has always found a way to be the best.”
The trophies, ribbons and medals in her room show that Reyes-Rivera has always been successful. When she didn’t do her best or finish first, there is also a small keepsake by her nightstand that says “Keep your head up.”
It’s a great reminder.
Stern coach Jorge Gonzalez recognized early that Reyes-Rivera was captain material. She placed 10th in the Los Angeles City Section cross country championships in November.
“Ariatna is a unique athlete,” he said. “She’s different. She comes from a family that runs. She’s dedicated. She’s a leader.”
Reyes knew Reyes-Rivera would take immediately to the sport.
“What makes her so great is she’s so persistent,” Reyes said. “She cares about what she’s doing. It gives her the ability to escape a little bit, but it helps keep her healthy physically and mentally.”
Reyes-Rivera said her role as captain has helped her immeasurably.
“Being captain not only helps motivate myself, but I try to help the girls push themselves to their limits,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how fast you are, but the motivation you see in the other girls.
“Sometimes we have do run six miles a day. It’s hard, but then I think I’m the captain. If I don’t push myself then the other girls won’t want to push themselves.”
The same traits it takes to be disciplined and successful runner, Reyes-Rivera displays in the classroom, said Stern AP English and composition teacher Lynda De Anda.
“I don’t often see in students that single mindset on how I’m going to succeed,” she said. “But I see Ariatna pushing her friends and giving them that motivation for them to do well.”
Said Stern school counselor Nancy Cuadra: “Ariatna’s peers see many qualities in her that maybe she doesn’t even see in herself. …Ariatna is so deserving of this award. She has been giving 120 percent in every aspect of her life, her athletics show it, and I think that makes for a very deserving student like herself.”
Reyes-Rivera said that the lessons, both physically and spiritually, through running has helped with all of it.
“When I’m running, my mind clears from everything else,” she said. “All the other stress I’ve had.
“The biggest lessons I’ve learned is not to give up. Every second counts. You have all these people you’re running for, my family, my friends. I want to make them proud.
“No matter when things get tough, you have to try harder, you have to train harder. Pain is only temporary. You just have to keep pushing.”
When she doesn’t feel like pushing, she turns to her late friend, and a poem presented at her memorial entitled “God Saw You.”
“God saw you getting tired, and a cure was not to be.
“So He puts His arms around you and whispered ‘come to me.’
“A golden heart stopped beating, laying loving hands set to rest.
“God broke our hearts to prove to us, he only takes the best.
“It’s lonesome here without you, we miss you more each day.
“Life doesn’t seem the same since you have gone away.
“When days are sad and lonely and everything goes wrong.
“We seem to hear you whisper, ‘Cheer up and carry on.
“Each time we see your picture, you seem to smile and say.
“Don’t cry, I’m in God’s hands, we’ll meet again some day.”
Until then, Reyes-Rivera will push fully each day on earth, her friends, family and teachers say.
“I think she embodies all those traits to earn this Athlete of the Month award,” De Anda said. “She also does as a student and as a human. I think she’ll be very successful.”