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Tomeo sets bar high, clears it with style

Whitworth pole vaulter Chibron Tomeo is expected to help the Pirates vie for a trophy at the track and field championships.
Whitworth pole vaulter Chibron Tomeo is expected to help the Pirates vie for a trophy at the track and field championships.

Amid the scattered hives of activity at a track meet, there is little to distinguish Chibron Tomeo from the other athletes chasing hundredths of a second and fractions of an inch.

There is the bobbing lance of fiberglass advancing his sprint down the runway in a medieval joust with an opponent halfway to the sky. And the fact that, in the middle of his pursuit, he is upside down on a pole 16 feet in the air.

But what really sets him apart is a shrill, solitary screech.

From the stands.

“Go Daddy!” it sounds across the field each time he rocks into motion.

This is the urging of Chibron Jr., age 3, whose identification with Dad is already so complete that at home he uses a splinter of an old, broken pole to fly from the bed to another mattress on the floor.

A Chibron off the old vault.

College track’s postseason reaches full speed this weekend, and in Lacrosse, Wis., Whitworth will make a run at a trophy in the NCAA Division III championships, the weight of a few necessary points riding on the muscled shoulders of Tomeo, whose school record of 16-1 3/4 ranks him fourth among the event’s qualifiers.

This national profile is becoming a tradition for coach Toby Schwarz’s Pirates.

Chibron Tomeo, however, is anything but the traditional Whitworth athlete.

“You have the kid who comes straight out of high school and Mom and Dad pay for college,” Schwarz said. “And then you’ve got Bron.”

Age 26. Married to the former Erika Horobiowski. Father of a revved-up little guy. Son, brother and cousin to an extended and loving Native American family. Working man – he spent four years building fences in Spokane before Erika and both of their mothers persuaded him to go back and give school his best shot. Survivor.

And not in a metaphorical sense. An actual survivor.

When he was 19 and a year out of Mead High School, Tomeo was ambushed outside a cousin’s house by a man with a steak knife after a confrontation had cooled without blows an hour before. Stabbed three times in the back and arms – Tomeo remembers his attacker saying, “I’m going to kill you” – he fled down the street, eventually collapsing on a porch where he was found by the cousin and his girlfriend, who called 911.

“The only thing I remember in the ambulance was they kept slapping me really hard in the face, telling me to stay awake,” Tomeo said. “And I was freezing. My teeth were chattering.”

Later, EMTs told Tomeo and his mother that he was clinically dead twice en route to the hospital.

Marvin Butterfly, the assailant, was sentenced to 34 months in prison after pleading guilty to assault. Weightier charges might have been pursued, but Tomeo declined to testify.

“My grandmother is a strong Christian who always believed in forgiveness,” he said, “and that just kept playing in the back of my head.”

It was maybe a week after the attack that he met Erika, which proved to be far more life-changing.

The earning of an honest buck as a fence-builder notwithstanding, there was always a belief among Tomeo’s circle that he had more to offer. Foremost among those was his eventual bride, who saw in him the teacher he’s now studying to be.

“At family events, he’s always with the kids,” she said, “and any time our nieces and nephews come over, he helps them with their schoolwork. I think it’s just his passion.”

It’s not just a family bias. After student teaching at Shiloh Hills last fall, the fifth graders sent him off with a memory book they’d made.

But as anyone who’s tried to revive a mothballed academic career can attest, it comes with struggle. Family help with child care while his wife works has been essential. So has Erika’s mastery of a dry-erase calendar which keeps her husband on task. Even little Bron chips in: Dad’s off-limits when he’s doing homework in his office, unless a hug is necessary.

Tomeo’s skills on the pole returned more easily, though there were struggles, too, in his first two years at the Community Colleges of Spokane. A state champ at both the 1B (for Glenwood) and 4A levels, he’s won two Northwest Conference titles at Whitworth, though that hasn’t been his biggest impact.

“He’s not the married athlete who parachutes in for an hour and is gone because he has all these other demands,” Schwarz said. “He invested. He’s been here for two years and it seems like he’s been here for four.”

And there was a return investment. “Track really helped him grow into the man he is,” Erika said.

Tomeo’s view?

“I wasn’t going anywhere, just living day to day with no plan,” he said. “There are things I want to do now, and I’ve been given so much help – from my wife, my family, my school – to do them.”

No wonder it looks so easy getting over that bar.


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