For Amador Valley High graduate Jacob Lawrence, getting back on track has a deeper meaning than a reference to his love of running.
Lawrence, a cross-country and track and field athlete who is a freshman at Chabot College, can give lessons on what it takes to get back on path. Everything came to a sudden stop the summer before his senior year at Amador Valley. A major seizure, surgery for a brain tumor and a rigorous road to recovery changed his life forever.
Thanks to hard work and dedication, Lawrence is on track to success after learning the velocity in which life can change.
“This changed my whole perspective on life,” Lawrence reflected. “I wasn’t too grateful before, and I wasn’t living life to its fullest. It forced me to mature as a person. The whole entire thing was a big slap in the face. This life thing is not to be taken for granted.”
Though it wasn’t easy, the timeline of his recovery was stunningly swift. He returned to compete in cross-country in the fall of 2019, a few months after major surgery. Though his final track and field season was shuttled due to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s been persistent with training and working out. He’ll be ready whenever a green light is given for sports at Chabot, whether for cross-country or track and field.
He has impressed his friends, even those with amazing accomplishments themselves.
“Coming off being hospitalized, months of not running, yet he was so confident that he would come back ... that’s most impressive,” said Amador Valley senior John Lester, one of the nation’s best in the 800 meters in track. “That’s a lesson that life or anything can be pulled away in an instant, and how you respond to it is more important than the situation itself.”
As a youth, Lawrence was drawn first to track and later to cross-country. His enthusiasm for running was contagious.
“I was always someone who was doing three sports at time, and his main priority was always into track and always into cross,” said Lester, who met Lawrence in the fourth grade through Catholic Youth Organization track with Catholic Community of Pleasanton. “He was always saying ‘You guys should do this.’”
At Amador Valley, Lawrence ran the 800 meters, the mile and two-mile in track and field in the spring and ran cross-country in the fall. After an injury-plagued track season as a junior, he looked forward to a healthy and successful senior year.
Everything changed for Lawrence in late June 2019. On a camping trip in White Pines in Calaveras County, he was hanging out with friends as the night was winding down.
“They looked at me, and my face was turning purple, he said. “I was foaming at the mouth. At first, they thought I was joking, then I started to stop breathing.”
This was a grand mal seizure, the scariest and most severe type. He got first aid from a friend’s mother, a medical professional. He went to the nearest hospital, which was three to four hours away. “I was so dazed, it felt like a 10-minute ride.”
He underwent an MRI and was stunned to learn he had a large golf-ball sized tumor on the left side of his brain.
“I asked, ‘Are you joking?’” he recalled.
There was more bad news — he would need brain surgery to remove the tumor. Lawrence’s reaction was to resist what would be a complicated surgery.
“I legit thought I would die, so what I did for a month straight was hang with my friends all day,” he said. “My parents kept nagging, ‘You need to get this surgery.’ I just needed to take my mind off of it.”
Finally, he relented. Nearly a month after the seizure, he had surgery. The surgery turned out to be even more arduous, he said, as surgeons needed to go through the speech center to get the tumor out. There were countless skills he needed to regain.
“I can only describe it as like deleting the information on the hard drive,” he said. “I knew all this stuff, but I couldn’t speak, type, use my phone, remember passwords. My vision was messed up ... my peripheral vision was limited, and I had trouble with my coordination.”
His impulse during his nearly two-week recovery in the hospital was to run away. A security watch was kept so he’d stay put. Even when he went home, there was a constant restlessness.
“I had to be doing something every single second,” Lawrence said.
Speech therapy and relearning skills like reading were important building blocks. One of his mother’s friends helped him with reading.
“When I got back, I could only read one page of a children’s book,” he said. “And I was a good reader and had good grades in English. I would say things, but they would be really forced. She helped me get back on my feet, learning how to read and how to speak again.”
Seeing Lawrence soon after he returned home was a jolt to Lester.
“He looked very pale and had lost a lot of weight,” he said. “The whole thing was very surreal, because to me he was always like a mentor. That was a little unsettling, but he was jovial, and all he could do was talk about running.”
Remarkably, Lawrence made it back to school on time in the fall.
“The first day, I could not even write,” he said. “People didn’t understand at first. The ones who did understand helped me a lot.”
Somehow, Lawrence made his way back into cross-country, missing just the first three meets that fall. Jason Oswalt, who coached him in both sports in Lawrence’s four years at Amador, used caution in bringing along a restless Lawrence, who needed time and patience as he worked himself back to form.
“At the beginning, we were trying to work with him through his own frustrations and making sure he was safe,” Oswalt said. “He started to progress and became more able.”
His comeback race was a junior varsity race at Shadow Cliffs, with a modest goal of finishing in the top 30. He started out in the back of the pack but moved up in bunches and built to a good 5:40 pace in the final stage to finish second. Still, he was pushing higher.
“He wanted to do better, so I said, ‘Dude, that was your first race back. You didn’t have anyone (of varsity level) to run with,’” Lester said. “He was self-critical, though not in a negative way. It did not take him long to get back.”
Lawrence points to a one-on-one locker room conversation with Lester as pivotal to getting his mindset right. Lester sought to ease his friend’s frustration.
“I said, ‘Look, Jacob, the fact that you're running right now is important,” Lester recalled. “It’s not like you lost time. I’m going to be there for you. Take it one day at a time. His initial response was walking away, but I know he took it to heart.”
Great things were on the horizon for both. Lester, who will be running track at Stanford this fall, went on in June to record the nation’s third-fastest time ever for a high school junior in the 800 meters. Lawrence made great strides in his comeback, returning to varsity as the No. 7 runner, but soon made his way to No. 5.
Since the top five runners are most crucial in cross-country team scoring, it gave Lawrence an important task and renewed confidence. He thrived in that spot at the North Coast Section (NCS) championship meet, as his time of 16 minutes, 16.7 seconds was fifth for his team and 22nd overall as Amador Valley was a close second place to Dublin in Division I, featuring the section’s largest schools.
“He had his best race at NCS — it was the best cross-country race he’s run in his life,” Oswalt said.
The performance landed Amador Valley in the CIF state championships, and Lawrence reached his goal of running in a state championship race for the first time. At Woodward Park in Fresno, Amador Valley made California’s top 10 in Division I, finishing eighth. Again, Lawrence held that crucial fifth-best spot.
“He was very instrumental in us getting any place we did,” Lester said. “I think he pulled through with a fantastic race. Everyone was thrilled.”
On the heels of the state cross-country showing, Amador Valley’s aspirations for the 2020 spring track season were sky-high. The Dons began by hosting their Dan Gabor Invitational on March 7, when Lawrence dropped four seconds off his personal record to run 4:25 in the boys 1,600 (mile) race. But there was no chance for Lawrence or his team to build on that momentum.
The next week, schools in California were shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and a promising track season never resumed. However, that didn’t stop Lawrence’s comeback, he just shifted gears.
He adjusted to distance learning, and he redoubled his efforts to train on his own, setting new personal high marks in the time trials that have filled some of the void of traditional competition. He graduated from Amador Valley in May and started at Chabot this past fall.
“Before this, I never had 100% applied myself,” Lawrence said. “Whether I was getting in trouble or not watching my diet … running is a lifestyle, and you really have to live it.”
That one track meet marked a transition to college, as it was where Chabot track and field and cross-country coach Kyle Robinson met Lawrence and heard in-depth about what he’d been through.
During the lengthy time sports have been on hold during the pandemic, Robinson and fellow coaches have seen a lot of potential athletes fall out of contact. That’s not been the case with Lawrence.
“The fact he’s continuing to train and run in these time trials during the shelter in place is impressive,” Robinson said. “It is neat to see him that committed.”
Lawrence is aiming to major in business administration when he moves on to a four-year college. He is a student in Robinson’s health class and has impressed his teacher/coach on his academic prowess.
“He’s on top of everything,” Robinson said. “He has a solid GPA. He will have a whole lot of doors open for him when he gets his AA degree next year.”
Oswalt said that promise extends to athletics.
“He’s talented enough to make this more than a two-year stop,” Oswalt said. “He ran close to our mile record before John shattered it. Jacob really matured in the classroom, so the next stage is being able to be a college student.”
For Lawrence, he appreciates the rewards in overcoming setbacks.
“I seriously think this happened for a reason,” Lawrence said. “This pushed me into a different way I view life,” Lawrence said. “I am more grateful, especially when I wake up in the morning, and I am still here.”