»Way back in kindergarten when she arrived at school with a prosthetic left leg and foot, she soon showed the gawking and whispering little boys that she was none the lesser for it. In true Wonder Woman fashion, she had them take turns stomping on that foot at recess to show it did not hurt her.
»Seven years ago, when Dare2tri – an Illinois based non-profit organization that enhances lives of people with disabilities by involving them in running, swimming and biking – first trumpeted her to the Paralympics folks involved with USA Triathlon, the effort was met with skepticism because Grace was just 16 and her resume was so thin.
“They wanted Grace to be in the open wave of competition (at the Chicago ITU World Paratriathlon event) rather than with the elite group,” Robin said. “The Dare2tri people said, ‘Naah, you got to see this kid. You’re going to want her to compete.’
“She did compete in the elite wave in that first triathlon and came in second! Two weeks later they called us and wanted her to come to Magog, Canada, to do another triathlon because she had to have two so she could compete for them in the world championships.”
She won at Magog and finished fifth at the world championship in Edmonton.
»In October of 2019 – as part of the Cedarville University triathlon club team – she competed in the Collegiate Club National Championships. She had never before competed in an Olympic triathlon – where the distance is double what she normally does in a paratriathlon – and she was told we she would have to start in the second wave of 150 orange-capped swimmers, rather than the race’s top wave of 150 white caps.
“There was a 10-minute interval between the two waves,” Robin said. “They swam in a rectangle and, as expected, Grace led the orange caps and then you saw her moving up through the group of white caps.”
There were 500 able-bodied females competing that day and Grace finished 26th.
»At the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, then 18-year-old Grace was the youngest of the 247 U.S. Paralympians. She was also one of only two of those athletes competing in two different sports in Brazil.
She was in the Games first-ever paratriathlon – and was not expected to win – and a day later she was running the 400meters for the track team.
But she won the paratriathlon gold medal and then took bronze in the 400.
»Now fast forward to this year and the Tokyo Paralympics that start Aug. 24 after being delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although she was golden in 2016 and had gone undefeated in 2017, Grace said last week that she’d fallen into “a slump” in 2018. She was struggling in the cycling part of her competitions and dropping two and three minutes behind the two top competitors from Great Britain: Lauren Steadman and Claire Cashmore.
Grace always is at a disadvantage when the swimming portion ends and competitors switch to the cycling. While Steadman and Cashmore, who are both missing hands, can run straight to their bikes and pedal off, Grace, who swims without a prosthetic, must be carried from the water, then dry her upper leg off and attach the prosthetic before getting on her bike.
She ended up rated No. 3 in the world and realized she had to change something is she hoped to compete for gold in Tokyo.
Nine months ago she left her longtime coach, Wes Johnson, and joined forces with Greg Mueller, who had competed as a cyclist at Indiana University and at 2000 Olympic Trials before switching to triathlons.
“I wanted to make sure that I had turned over all the stones and was doing everything possible in order to be the best in the world and that’s what ultimately led me to Greg,” Grace said. “And now we’ve pulled away a lot of my weaknesses and made them become strengths.”
That showed last month in an event in Leeds, England. Instead of being three minutes behind, Grace trailed Steadman by 45 seconds and was just a second behind Cashmore.
“At the finish line,” Robin said, “Lauren turned and looked at Grace and said: ‘You have major league improved your bike!’”
Three weeks later Grace topped another elite competitor – Canada’s Kamylle Frenette – by over five minutes at the Americas Triathlon Para Championships in Wisconsin and that qualified her for Tokyo.
The U.S. team was officially announced last week.
Although she was born with an amniotic band disorder that cost her her left foot and ankle and her right toe – and nearly her right leg – Grace never has let the disability deter her.
When people ask her what it’s like to live with a handicap, Robin said her daughter says she doesn’t know. She doesn’t see herself that way.
Now 23, Grace already is one of the most accomplished, most well-travelled – she’s competed in places like Qatar, Australia, Japan, Brazil, Netherlands and Switzerland – and most well-rounded athletes ever to call the Miami Valley home.
She graduated from Cedarville last year with a nursing degree and now has her RN license and has talked of one day working in an ER.
“This is just the beginning of a great story, even though it started four years ago,” Mueller said. “She’s still young and has so many great things to come.”
‘Rock solid individual’
Tim, a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Cedarville University, has competed in masters swimming and done triathlons. Robin, a child psychologist for Scioto Paint Valley Medical Health Center, ran track at Purdue University.
Their oldest daughter, Bethany, was a high star and ran distance events at Cedarville University. And their youngest girl, Danielle, is a junior at Cedarville and has done a triathlon.
They are a sports-minded family and that raised questions when Grace was born.
“We found out in the delivery room and it was kind of a shock,” Tim said. “I was thinking, ‘We’re a family of runners, how is this going to work out? Is she going to be OK?’
“I had faith, but that’s when your faith smacks you in the face and says, ‘But what do you REALLY believe?’”
He said it helped that he had some good people in his life, including their orthopedic surgeon and their pastor.
The best things though came from Tim and Robin themselves and especially from little Grace.
“For us it was very important we raise Grace as normal,” Robin said. “The Lord gave Grace the right personality and put her in the right family.”
“God made her a certain way,” Tim said. “She was preprogrammed for this …and off she went.”
She was the only one of the three Norman girls to constantly crawl out of her crib and explore on her own.
At 11 months and without a left foot, she was “walking on her stub,” Tim said. “That was a shock to me. I would have thought someone born without a foot wouldn’t be able to get up. But not her. And that’s when I figured, ‘if she does this well now, imagine when she actually gets a foot.’”
And within a couple of months, she did have one.
“From the start we decided, ‘If she needs a new foot, let’s get her the best one available,’ and we’ll give her plenty of encouragement to be what she wants to be, too,” Tim said.
Robin once told me how Grace would bring her elementary school playground to a standstill at recess when, without a thought, she’d sit down and take off her leg to remove a stone that had gotten kicked up in it.
When her prosthetic cracked once during a soccer game, Robin suggested the coach just pack duct tape for the next game.
At Xenia Christian High she won the Metro Buckeye Conference 500 freestyle swim competition against able-bodied boys. And as a junior she was the first disabled girl in Ohio high school history to ever make the podium at the state track meet when she finished eighth in the 1,600 meter run against all able-bodied competitors.
Things really came into focus for her though when she and her family – on their way to a family reunion -- happened to stop at the 2012 Paralympic Trials in Indianapolis
“I grew up in a small town and went to a small Christian school and there was no one really like me that I’d ever seen, no one with a prosthetic limb” she said. “I grew up not knowing any Paralympic athlete.
“But in Indianapolis that day I saw people like me and I was really inspired. I was able to talk to some of the athletes and that really piqued my interest to be a Paralympian. It became real.”
As Grace began to make a name for herself, Robin said: “We always tried to keep things very real. We didn’t have to fight Grace on that, but we had to fight coaches and Paralympic organizations sometimes.
“We didn’t want her to just be Paralympian. For a normal life she needed high school and college sports and other interests. You only get to do some of that once in life and we felt she was capable of doing all of that.
“She’s a pretty rock solid individual.”
Olympics coming into focus
When the country shut down as the COVID pandemic ramped up in March of last year, Grace had been 24 hours away from trying to qualify for Tokyo at a paratriathlon in Sarasota.
Within 36 hours, Cedarville University would cancel in-person classes and the NCAA would shut down the entire track season.
With much of her world suddenly shuttered – Grace had been an National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) All American track athlete as a CU senior – she went to St. George, Utah, where her coach lived and had planned to have a triathlon camp, which also was canceled. For the next several months she lived out there and trained while taking her Cedarville classes online.
After changing coaches she moved to Florida and then South Bend, where Mueller and his family live.
The training they have been doing has been intense. The other day they were in Columbus, Ind., for some special training to prepare for the humid, subtropical climate of Tokyo.
“This morning it was 92 degrees here with 80 percent humidity,” Mueller said. “The last three days Grace has ridden about 120 miles, climbed about 8,000 feet and done open water, strength and mobility (training).
“And today we sat in a closed up van for 30 minutes after riding for three hours. "
Grace has four sponsors for her Tokyo effort, including Dayton-based Optimus Prosthetics, which has provided her with her legs since she was five.
This month she’s also on the cover of Triathlon Magazine.
While everything is coming together, one thing will be missing in Tokyo.
Japan – which declared a state of COVID emergency last week – is allowing no one into the country to see the Games.
Her family did surprise her though in Wisconsin and several people – including her boyfriend from Miami – all were there to watch her win.
“We just want her to know we’re behind her 100 percent and are so proud of her,” Robin said.
That was obvious.
The whole group wore specially-made shirts that read: “Team Grace Noman… USA.” On the back they said. “Tokyo 2021.”
That, too, is dressing for success.