MORAGA, Calif. — Abandonment, neglect, and despair — all significant aspects of the harrowing journey from foster care to record books for Gabe Arias-Sheridan, a junior and member of the Saint Mary’s College cross country team.
Opportunity loomed beyond Gabe’s reach for years. But dangle it in his face, and he’s going to run with it.
Arias-Sheridan spent his first two years at Saint Mary’s competing with uncertain legs. Underwhelming performances led to a decision: a commitment to improve. He recognized his opportunity and the honor of being able to write history at a small private school in Moraga.
“His maturity is what impresses me most,” said Marty Kinsey, SMC cross country and track head coach. “If he continues on this path he will go down as one of the greatest runners ever to come through the college.”
This year he’s been the top runner for Saint Mary’s in every race. But the road he took was dark and unavoidable, and not even at his fastest could he outrun the devastating adversity he faced during his youth.
In his early years, he lived what he believed to be a normal life. Gabe and his older brother were under the supervision of his working-class mother, and the three of them lived in an apartment in Riverside, California.
Then came a new boyfriend, and abuse, and eviction.
“She got this boyfriend, and that’s where everything went down hill,” Arias-Sheridan said. “I don’t know why, but she just went back to him.”
At the age of 7, he was taken from his biological mother and placed in foster care. For half a decade, he adjusted to a life incomprehensible to most. His concept of a mother, the face of his mother, the voice of his mother, was secured, but distant. Contact remained, because it was family, and it was all he knew.
“This is my mom, you’re going to have love for your parents, no matter what the situation is. But as I grew older, I was able to fully understand what happened and what she could’ve done. She really didn’t care at that point,” Arias-Sheridan said.
He was conscious of the turmoil that led to his foster care inception, but at 7 years old, it’s tough to fully make sense of a process that entirely severs the roots that held together the only life you know.
“You don’t fully understand what’s going on. I didn’t fully understand what happened — what my biological parents could have done to keep me — until I was older,” he said.
SEPARATION BRINGS UNITY
Separated from his older brother, who went to a different foster care home, Arias-Sheridan stayed close to his three younger sisters, who ended up in the same house he was.
In the fifth year of foster care, his sisters were adopted. All of them.
And when the paperwork was finalized for a single mother who wanted three girls, Gabe was left all alone.
“I had lived most of my life with them. It was like someone was taking them away from me,” he said.
The trenches of adversity foster bonds with ungodly strength. Factor in blood relation, and the magnitude of the strength flourishes. His sisters addressed their new mother and spoke of their brother who was left behind.
Following a few lonely months, Arias-Sheridan was able to visit his sisters. And that visit birthed the idea of adopting a fourth child. After five years in foster care, and just shy of his 13th birthday, Gabe became a son to another single mother.
“I don’t know what I would’ve done not being with my sisters,” he said. “I appreciate [my adopting mother] so much.
“It’s not really an easy thing to do. You’re adopting kids who are older, she already missed the part of changing diapers and going through elementary school, but she didn’t care. She just wanted to help out and make it seem like I was always her kid.”
SEARCHING FOR A PATH
Fourteen years went by before a man stood in front of Gabe claiming to be his father. While Arias-Sheridan was a resident to an abusive household, he was never around. As a young boy in a foster care home, he never visited.
“He tried to come back in my life, but didn’t really explain why he left my mom in the beginning,” he said. “I wouldn’t really call him my dad.”
At that point he had his mother, who cared for him. Care that he could feel, care that he knew was real, care that was in the other room while he slept. A single mother with four adopted siblings — that was enough for him. He wasn’t looking for a father figure at that point.
Arias-Sheridan recalled his desire to play soccer during his youth, partly stemming from his Mexican heritage, but until the age of 13, he had not participated in any organized sport. The initial nudge came from his new mother in an effort for him to make friends not long after she took him in.
The first sport he tried out for, to his dismay, was cross country. Go figure.
“Not something I wanted to do at that point. ‘What’s cross country? I don’t want to run,’” Arias-Sheridan said in recalling his initial evaluation.
And then his timid, nervous posture snaps and with it the corner of his mouth reaches his eyes. It was as if he went back to the very moment he was preparing to describe.
He showed up to the race with a plan. His attire: jeans and camouflage high-top Converse shoes. Surely they won’t make me run in this well thought-out getup, he assumed.
But he ran, and he ran really well.
“It was a different feeling, compared to playing soccer,” Arias-Sheridan. “I ended up liking it after that race.”
He finished the rest of the year running in the same high-top shoes. He did, however, get a pair of “normal shorts.”
“[Sports] made up for lost time. As a kid growing up, now that I look at it, I didn’t have a normal childhood,” Arias-Sheridan said.
RUNNING: A WAY OF LIFE
As it stands, for more than half his life, the realm of sports — playing, watching, idolizing — was a foreign concept. As a young boy, there was nobody to properly lace his running shoes, give him his first soccer ball or show him the basic bounce pass.Arias-Sheridan questions the kind of impact sports might have had on his life had they been introduced during his darkest days. Though, regardless of when it began, there’s aspects cemented into his brain. Like the father figure he never had, and the high school coach which, whether intentional or not, slid into that role.
“I trusted [my coach], that he wanted the best for me. Whenever I had any problems outside of school, or with running, I would easily be able to talk to him,” Arias-Sheridan said. “And I still talk to him.”
His first two seasons running for Saint Mary’s were a struggle. Years of dedication were met with questions of "why?" and his practicing plummeted. It had become a monotonous grind of repetition that left him questioning his love for the sport. And so he carried on in mechanized fashion.
After his sophomore season, something changed, and he made the decision to become a better runner and took his training to the high elevation of Tahoe, California, to live and train with teammate Noah McDermott.
As a sophomore, he finished 20th at the West Coast Conference Championships. This year he finished 10th and earned first-team All-WCC honors. And at this season’s Bronco Invitational, where he finished 11th last year, he won — setting a new record for the meet and for Saint Mary’s (23:27.8).
Arias-Sheridan is a Division I athlete with his name etched in record books, and he’s on his way to graduating from a prominent academic institution. The hand he was dealt was far from desirable. But he turned a seven-deuce off-suit into a straight flush.
He’s a walking specimen of gratitude, courage and perseverance, reminding people that summoning the strength to break through the gruesome binds of misfortune is an achievable order. And, if only in this moment, he reminds everyone of the power of sports — for the individual, for the team and for the fan.
“You get to be whoever you want when you’re playing a sport,” he said. “I know when I run, I forget about what’s going on around me — I forget about school, I forget about different stresses I have in life. That’s what running has done for me. It helps me be who I am.”