High school junior sets paralympic world records

Except for that one chicken, Grace Norman has had a wondrously triumphant summer.

On Thursday’s first day of school, the principal at Xenia Christian High — where Grace is a 16-year-old junior — suggested as much when he told the entire student body during chapel service that she had just set two world records at the Ontario Para-Athletics Championships in Canada a few days earlier.

A long-legged track athlete who runs with a J-shaped carbon fiber prosthetic to make up for her missing left foot and ankle, she established world records in the 800 meters and the 1,500 meters in the T-44 class, which means below-knee amputations.

One of 20 American athletes invited to join the meet, Grace ran a 2:26.19 in the 800, shattering the world mark by a whopping 12 seconds.

Her time in the 1500 — 5:05.07 — obliterated the existing American record by more than two minutes!

Yet last weekend’s accomplishments were just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to conquest in what has become Grace’s most excellent summer. She’s made a splash in events in California, Chicago, back up in Canada, Michigan, Indiana and around Ohio.

In June, she set the American record in the 400 meters at the US Paralympic Track and Field National Championships in San Mateo, Calif.

She competes in six triathlons, as well, this summer. Wearing her first Team USA uniform (it reads NORMAN in bold letters across the front and the back), she finished second to a far more experienced athlete from Great Britain at the ITU World Triathlon Chicago, then three weeks later won in Magog, Quebec.

And her summer’s not done.

She will compete for Team USA at the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Edmonton, Alberta on Aug. 30. After that there’s the USA Para Triathlon Nationals in Tempe, Ariz., in September, the Pan American Games next year, the next World Championships in Qatar and, as of now, she appears almost certain to represent the U.S. at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Closer to home, she established herself as a champion at the Greene County Fair in Xenia this summer. She takes part in the annual 4H competitions and this year — once again — she won with her Alpine goats, both for their ability to pull carts and handle obstacle courses as a pack.

She did a duct tape project, making a wallet and flowers, and won. And she took the pattern of a dress her mom, Robin, made for her honeymoon and redid it. Her white dress with navy blue and purple swirls won the formal wear competition and she’ll like wear it to homecoming this year.

But then there were the broiler chickens.

You have to have a pen of three, but the day before the fair one of her chickens died from what she believes was an eating disorder.

“I brought the other two chickens,” Grace said with a shrug. “But when the judges got there, they were like, ‘Hey where did the other one go?’ ”

One busy girl

Grace was born without her left foot and ankle and missing her right big toe. It was all due to an amniotic band disorder, a congenital condition where fetal parts in the womb — often digits or limbs — get ensnared in fibrous bands that can cause everything from amputations, club feet and cleft palates to miscarriage.

She was fitted with her first prosthetic leg at 13 months and eventually showed she had inherited the athletic genes of her parents. Her dad, Tim, competes in masters swimming events and triathlons. Her mom was a prep track star in Indiana, ran at Purdue and since has done half-marathons.

This past March — running with a Flex Foot Cheetah made famous by South African runner Oscar Pistorius — Grace made Ohio high school history when she became the first amputee to run at a state meet.

Competing at the Ohio Association of Track and Cross Country Coaches Indoor State Championships at the University of Akron, she finished seventh in the 3,200-meter run and she was part of the Xenia Christian 3,200-relay team that came in 11th.

When the USA Paralympic Track and Field Committee learned of that effort, she was invited to the national championships and has since established herself as one of the country’s budding elite para athletes.

A high school swimmer as well as a track standout, her transition to the triathlon was a natural. But there are disadvantages in the PT-4 category she’s been put in because she ends up competing against people who may be missing a hand but have both legs intact.

She ends up losing a couple of minutes each competition because those women can quickly run to the next challenge while she must either change her prosthetic — one for biking, a different one for running — or she sheds it completely to swim.

In her class she’s ranked fourth in the world behind two Brits and an Italian. She’s just ahead of a Russian.

“Those girls from Great Britain, Italy, Germany or wherever, they’re a lot older than me — a lot of them are twice my age — and that can be kind of intimidating. They do their sport all the time and get paid to train. They are crazy strong and very committed to what they do.

“Me, I try to fit my training in while going to high school and running for our cross country team.”

To say she has a full slate at Xenia Christian is an understatement. She’s a 3.9 student with a current class load that includes pre-calculus, physics, Spanish III, English, a bible class, group piano and concert band, where she plays the trumpet. Her cross country team opens the season today with a meet in Hebron.

“She has cross country practice every day,” Robin said. “Two mornings a week she gets up before school to do swimming workouts with her dad at the Xenia YMCA. She does a long-distance bike workout once a week and an intermediate one another night.”

Grace said the other women were stunned to find out she was a high school student.

“They thought I was in my 20s,” she said. “When they found out I was just 16, they were like, ‘Wow, that’s really good.’ They say I have a lot of potential because you get faster and stronger as you get older. They told me, ‘You have a great future.’ “

Although her birthday was in early March, she didn’t have her Sweet 16 party until Wednesday evening at the family’s Jamestown home.

Part of the reason was her full schedule, but there was also the memory of her swim team gathering at the house last school year and somehow the couch got broken.

“My parents said, ‘OK, we’ll wait for warm weather because your next party is outside,’ ” Grace said with a laugh. “But as it turned out, the weather wasn’t very good Wednesday. We have a pool but we couldn’t swim. So we moved inside and were just careful. Everything was fine.”

Grace’s Norman’s summer triumphs just keep on happening.