LAWRENCE — To Aneisha Berrios, the moment seems like just yesterday, yet at the same time a lifetime ago, the day a seemingly average Lawrence city middle school track meet turned out to be one of the defining moments of her young life.
“I was always afraid to try sports because I thought people would judge me and laugh at me for being overweight,” she said. “But in my first track meet in middle school I took first in the shot put. The fact that I actually won something was unbelievable. Finally, I had a victory I could call my own.”
Now a senior at Lawrence High, Berrios is the energetic and engaging captain and star thrower for the Lancers. She will look to defend her Merrimack Valley Conference discus title on Saturday at Andover High. Next year she will be competing for UMass Lowell.
But for Berrios, the greatest gift that track has given her could never be quantified by trophies, plaques or medals. It is a gift that she dreamed of growing up, and that she is now thankful every day that she found.
Starting with that middle school meet, after many years of insecurity, Berrios began to feel comfortable in her own skin.
“She really is so much more confident now,” said her mother, Nadia Berrios. “She doesn’t doubt herself the way she used to. And it wasn’t until she found track that she really started to open up. I think it really helped her. She’s a firecracker now.”
Not long ago, the thought of becoming a track star seemed impossible to Berrios.
“I never played sports growing up because I was often made fun of because of my weight and my lack of abilities,” she said. “Anytime I was in gym class and we had to do a sport that involved running I would pull out some kind of excuse so I didn’t have to do it. I didn’t want people looking at me and laughing.”
Those insecurities not only held her back in sports, but also had a major impact on her life as a whole.
“It really bothered me,” she said. “I was always afraid people we looking at me and saying things about me. When you are a kid, you don’t really have a (peer) at school who you can talk to, because you are afraid that person is going to judge you, too.”
Aneisha’s mother could see the impact those fears had on her daughter.
“She was very, very quiet growing up,” said Nadia. “She is very smart, and school work always came first. But she wasn’t very confident around people.”
That all began to change during eighth grade, when she was introduced to track by Guilmette Middle School teacher Fred Tarbox, who is a soccer track coach at Haverhill High.
“Coach Tarbox came to me and asked if I wanted to try out throwing,” said Aneisha. “They kind of recruited me. I really liked it right away. We didn’t do the discus, but I liked the shot put.
“Then I won in my first meet and it was so cool. I was always afraid and actually winning something really started to build my confidence.”
By the time she was a sophomore, she was not only the Lancers’ top thrower, but she had been elected a captain.
“She found events that she loved and has worked so hard at it,” said Lawrence coach Anthony Ellis. “She works hard in the weight room and has done everything she can to be the best she can be.”
Berrios’s throwing career — and her confidence — reached an all-time high a year ago, when she won the MVC Meet title in the discus with a 105-2 throw.
“There was this girl from Billerica who just beat me every time,” she said. “But that day I was able to beat her, and it was amazing. I tried not to celebrate too much, but it was crazy.
“That was really when I became completely confident. Winning at MVCs just made me feel unbeatable. It made me feel like I could not be conquered. It was a feeling like I had never had before.”
Enrolled in Advanced Placement biology and calculus and ranked No. 32 in her class of 121, Berrios now has her eyes set on throwing at UMass Lowell.
And whether it is track, school or life as a whole, she will approach it with a self-confidence she once never imagined.
“I’m not afraid anymore,” she said. “I’m not afraid of talking about the way I feel or how I felt as a child. I can express myself now.”