Teenage Paralympian up for an ESPY Award on Wednesday night in Los Angeles
How’s this for a wardrobe upgrade?
She’s gone from a self-described “huge,” above-the elbow sugar-tong splint, then a short arm cast and finally a protective brace to a dazzling floor-length white dress with a gold top and fancy new shoes with gold heels that will be sure to glimmer on the red carpet.
After seven intoxicating months of accomplishment and glory were dashed by one sobering, bone-breaking moment – after winning gold and bronze medals at the Rio Paralympics last September, a Continental Championship six months later in Florida against paratriathletes from all across North and South America and then a race against able-bodied NCAA runners as she began her Cedarville University track career was suddenly eclipsed by a “freak” accident this spring that left her sidelined – Grace Norman was scheduled to board a flight early this morning in Columbus and fly to Los Angeles.
That’s where she’ll be celebrated at the 25th annual ESPY Awards ceremony Wednesday night.
NFL legend Peyton Manning will host the event, which will be jammed with many of the nation’s top athletes and Hollywood celebrities. ABC will broadcast the proceedings live beginning at 8 p.m.
A 19 year-old Cedarville University sophomore from Jamestown who competes with a J-shaped carbon-fiber Cheetah prosthetic because she is missing her left foot and ankle, Norman has been nominated for Best Female Athlete with a Disability.
She already is the most celebrated teenage athlete in the Miami Valley. She has competed in Qatar, Netherlands, Canada, Brazil and all across the United States. After her victory in Rio de Janeiro, she was honored by President Barack Obama at the White House. While training in Utah last year, she sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
Now comes the ESPYS.
Most winners are decided by a vote of the fans. To cast a ballot for Norman go to ESPYS.com. The poll closes Wednesday at 8 p.m.
The other four nominees in her category are: Oksana Masters (Nordic skiing), Tatyana McFadden (track and field), Becca Meyers (swimming) and Shawn Morelli (cycling.)
“They’re all amazing athletes,” Grace said Monday as she visited Dayton with her dad, Tim. “I didn’t even know I was nominated until two weeks ago, but now I’m super excited. It’s a big deal.”
Tim – who is a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Cedarville – will accompany his daughter to L.A.
He said he’s ready, too:
“I got a new tie.”
Tackling life head on
Grace was born without a left foot and ankle and minus a right big toe due to an amniotic band disorder.
Her family always encouraged her to tackle life head on and she did so, whether it was with the 4-H animals she’s raised for years or when she has competed in sports.
Her dad does triathlons. Her mom, Robin, was a track athlete at Purdue. Her older sister Bethany was a Cedarville runner. Younger sister, Danielle, is the guru with the animals.
“The first track meet we went to that was a paralympic event was in Indianapolis,” Tim said. “It was probably 2011 in a run up to the 2012 Games in London.
“We thought, ‘This would be kinda cool if she could do it,’ but it seemed like kind of a pipe dream at the time.”
Grace began to compete in several sports for Xenia Christian. She won a Metro Buckeye Conference 500-meter swimming event against able-bodied boys and girls and as a junior she became the first-ever amputee – girl or boy – to run in the state track meet. She finished eighth in the 1,600 meters.
“When she started to have success in running with able-bodied runners, we realized she IS a good athlete,” Tim said. “Then it became more and more of a natural extension of her talent. That’s when all this started to become real.”
She began triathlons at the local level three years ago and quickly made a name for herself. She won the 2016 paratriathlon world championship in Rotterdam, Netherlands last year when two-time defending champ Lauren Steadman of Great Britain crashed in the biking portion of the completion.
Coming into Rio de Janeiro, Steadman was again considered the favorite in their PT-4 division. Grace was one of the youngest competitors and one of only two of the 267 U.S. athletes competing in two different sports.
Plus Steadman is missing a right hand, so she moves easily from the swimming to the biking and then the running.
Grace – who swims minus her prosthetic – is carried out of the water. She then fits on one leg to bike and must switch to another to run. All that eats up considerable time.
In Rio, she was 45 seconds behind Steadman going into the final 5K run.
As her mom put it: “She put the hammer down.”
She didn’t just catch Steadman, she beat her by more than one minute.
Some 36 hours later Grace then took bronze in the 400 meters.
Coming off those victories, she began her collegiate career at Cedarville – she runs both cross country and track – and was doing well until she was hurt during training.
“It was a freak thing,” she said. “I was doing plyometrics, where you do exercise jumps up onto a wooden box. My prosthetic got stuck on the box and then my right leg came up. I fell backwards, put our my arm and landed on my wrist. It was a bad break. It was near the joint and the bone was fractured into three pieces.”
She ended up in the care of Centerville surgeon Dr. Rannie AlSamkari, who she said was “wonderful.”
Still, she admitted the first week was “really hard. I had never experienced an injury like this before and I was angry. I was mad at myself. I was questioning why this happened.”
She would not only miss the rest of the Cedarville season, but a paratriathlon she was scheduled to compete in in Japan and the national track championship at UCLA.
“But I found peace by trusting in God …and listening to Dr. AlSamkari,” she said
Tim nodded: “He was amazing doctor. He was super concerned about her. Most surgeons just would have operated. He said, ‘Grace, if I operate you’re going to be out six months. If we can keep this in perfect alignment and I don’t operate, it will be three months.’ That’s what he did and he released her in two months.”
She has rehabbed and begun training again. Her first paratriathlon competition is in 17 days in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Queen of the Greene County Fair
The ESPYS are not her only shot at a crowning moment this summer.
In three weeks she’ll be competing to be the Queen of the Greene County Fair. She’ll also be showing her goats, pigs, chickens and a cow there.
First though is L.A. and immediately afterward she flies to San Diego to train for a week with the entire U.S. paralympic triathlon team. From there she returns to Salt Lake City to train with her coach, Wesley Johnson. She only returned home this past weekend so she and Danielle could serve as the maids of honor in Bethany’s wedding.
From Utah, she will go to Edmonton, then take a redeye flight back home so she can compete the next day at the county fair.
After that, it’s another trip to Utah, then back to Cedarville, where classes begin Aug. 19 and she will have a cross country meet. Soon after, she flies back to the Netherlands to defend her world championship paratriathlon title.
“I’m very proud of her, but it’s all kind of mind blowing,” Tim said. “She’s doing these things that normal people you know just don’t do. And she’s doing them well.”
Her only setback may come tonight and it’s because of her age.
“They’re having an ESPYS pre-party, but I can’t go because I’m not 21,” she shrugged. “So maybe we’ll go to the beach.”
And that could accelerate the one other glitch.
She said she recently got a new walking leg “that is contoured like my real leg. And they put a skin covering over it that looks very real.”
She was wearing shorts Monday and she laughed when she pointed to the new leg and her deeply tanned other one.
“Well, they did look alike until I got tanned,” she smiled.
Tim chuckled, “And now she’ll likely get a shade darker out in California.”
With a gold medal on her resume and gold heels on her feet, she’ll look just fine on the red carpet.