WORCESTER (AP) — Duy Truong crouched down and settled into a sprinter’s stance, his body perfectly still and properly balanced. He raised his head and, at the crack of the starter’s gun, burst out of the blocks.
Five hurdles and 60 meters later, the Worcester State University sophomore crossed the finish line in 8.42 seconds. It was a personal-best time and good for ninth place at the ECAC Division 3 Championships held earlier this month at the famed Armory in New York.
Truong later helped the Lancers set a school record while winning the 800-meter relay before wrapping up his indoor track season earlier this month by finishing fifth in the 60-meter dash, a day after running his best time ever in the event.
“He’s been one of our top guys throughout the season,” longtime Worcester State coach Al Halper said. “He’s done a great job. He’s a hard worker, and he’s motivated to do well. You can’t ask for more than that.”
Anyone who saw Truong compete at Doherty High isn’t surprised he’s excelling at the collegiate level. After all, he was a two-time Central Mass. champion and T&G Super Team selection who was first named team captain as a sophomore.
Anyone who knows Truong knows otherwise. Forget about his remarkable sprinting and jumping skills. They’re thankful he can walk and talk normally.
“It was one of the more difficult times in my life,” Doherty coach and family friend Wendy Fenner said of seeing a bruised and beaten Truong lying in a hospital bed 2-1/2 years ago. “I really wondered if he’d be able to compete again athletically. It’s amazing, it really is.”
Truong never saw it coming. How could he?
The attack came from behind, a baseball bat used to club him twice in the head as he tried to escape a melee involving nearly 50 people on a street in Amherst.
Truong remembers little of what occurred over the next few days.
Of being listed in critical condition. Of being transferred, at his mom’s insistence, from a hospital in Springfield to one in Worcester, a move many credit with saving his life. Of undergoing surgery at UMass Memorial Medical Center to ease swelling in his brain.
“I really have very little recollection of that incident, which for me, I think, is probably a good thing because I’m not thinking about it all the time,” the personable Truong, now nearly 21, said last month while seated in a quiet corner of the otherwise-bustling WSU Student Center.
However, there are plenty of reminders of that life-altering assault.
The 6-inch scar and bumps on his skull he can feel when he runs his fingers through his short, black hair. The small horizontal scar on the bridge of his nose. The discoloration around his left eye that gives him the permanent appearance of having just been in a fight.
And the knowledge that no one was ever punished. Truong’s assailant got off when no witnesses stepped forward.
“It bothers me a little bit because you hear justice will be served, but I guess I’ve come to peace with it,” he said.
At one point, Truong couldn’t walk and had difficulty speaking. He regained his ability to do both without limitation after taking part in occupational, physical and speech therapy over the course of months at Fairlawn Rehabilitation in Worcester.
Headaches brought on from sensitivity to noise and commotion led to Truong being home-schooled once he resumed his studies. He graduated from Doherty, marching with the rest of the class of 2011, nine months after being attacked.
“I just remember it was nice to see everyone, but also sad because it was the last time we’d see each other together,” he said of commencement.
A self-described “knucklehead” as a high school freshman, Truong had knuckled down after that. He became more diligent about academics and decided he would like to become a high school math teacher and coach.
When the time came, he applied to nine colleges. The first seven to notify him did so with rejection letters. Then, finally, came some good news. He had been admitted to UMass-Dartmouth and Worcester State.
Truong initially thought he’d be heading to southeastern Massachusetts, the idea of getting out of the city and living on campus appealing to him. After visiting UMD, he decided there was no place like home.
“I’m actually really glad I ended up here,” said Truong, who lives at home with his mom and younger brother right down the road near Elm Park and is on campus three days a week for classes and pretty much every day for sports.
Halper is glad, too.
Even though Truong didn’t compete in athletics as a high school senior, Halper had recruited him aggressively. The chance to bring a potential Division 1 talent to a D3 school made it a “no-brainer.” And if you’re going to take a chance on someone, he figures it might as well be a Worcester kid.
To no one’s surprise, Truong was physically tentative and mentally apprehensive when he returned to the track. Chalk it up to a natural fear of the unknown.
But caution quickly gave way to competitiveness; indecisiveness was replaced by confidence.
“We weren’t sure how fast he’d come back,” Halper said. “But as luck would have it, he wasn’t that far off his high school times as a freshman, and he’s made nice progress from freshman year to sophomore year. He just keeps getting better.”
Which isn’t to say this comeback is complete.
Truong deals with visual neglect in his left eye, which occasionally causes him to bump into things even in familiar surroundings. More troublesome, he has short-term memory loss.
Truong frequently pauses while speaking. For most people, that would mean taking time to organize their thoughts. He’s searching his brain trying to find his thoughts.
Asked what classes he’s taking this semester, Truong quickly responded with pre-calculus and critical thinking. Then, after five or six seconds had passed, he added financial accounting.
“They say after 18 months, you’ll get as far as you’ll get,” Truong explained. “I’m past 18 months, and I realize there are certain things I’ll always have to live with. The doctors don’t want to guarantee me anything because they don’t want to give me false hope.”
It all has created difficulties in the classroom where none previously existed.
Fenner pointed out math used to come so easily to Truong, he could “see” it. Now it’s his hardest subject.
That first year of college is a tough transition for many and an eye-opening experience for everyone. It was all that and more for Truong, who, to his credit, has continued to put forth a maximum effort while taking advantage of a support staff that includes Worcester State’s Disability Services Office.
“So many grades weren’t where they needed to be,” he said, sounding frustrated and disappointed for the only time during a lengthy conversation. “But this past fall, I got my grades up, and hopefully I can keep the momentum going.”
Truong has overcome multiple hurdles to get to this point. He understands there are more to come, and most importantly, life is a marathon rather than a sprint.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.