Xenia Christian athlete an inspiration

Credit: Barbara J. Perenic

Credit: Barbara J. Perenic

It was a numbingly cold evening. Earlier there had been sleet. There still was gusting wind. And now it had gotten dark.

As the final events of the Golden Eagle Track and Field Invitational were being run Friday night at Bellbrook High School, the few spectators who were left were bundled in winter coats and hoods or wrapped in blankets … or both.

Yet, when it was time for the girls 800-meter run , you couldn’t help but wish some of those folks who had been seriously hurt in the Boston Marathon bombings — especially those who had lost feet and legs and maybe hope — were there to watch.

That way they would have seen Grace Norman, a tall, thin, 15-year-old Xenia Christian freshman with a long dark pony tail, shed her blue sweatshirt that had the Bible verse 1 Timothy 4:8 — “For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things…” — on the back.

Had they been close enough, they may have even seen those delicate, feathery designs on her fingernails that she’d worn as she accompanied her older sister Bethany to the prom last weekend. She’d worn silver high heels then, too, but now she was in purple and orange track shoes as she toed the white start line in lane 1.

One of the youngest runners in the race and seeded eighth among 13 entrants, she needed just a half lap of the two-lap race to pass nine other competitors.

By the end of the first loop, with her mom, Robin, the Xenia Christian distance coach, urging her on from the sidelines, she was second, a few yards behind Bellbrook senior Courtney Swain, but equally that far ahead of Kathryn Marshall, the Chaminade Julienne senior who was third.

As Grace showed her usual strong finish coming down the final stretch, her dad Tim, a Cedarville University engineering professor and an athlete himself, beamed:

“Grace has a kick at the end and it’s always exciting. To have her come down the lane like that and look really good and confident, it embodies everything you want a kid to stand for. She is pretty amazing.”

She finished second at 2 minutes, 38 seconds, a personal best in tough conditions.

Afterward Swain, who ran a 2:33, and Marshall, who was third at 2:40, were curious and complimentary of Grace.

“I’ve never seen her before, she surprised me,” Swain said. “What grade is she?”

Told she was a freshman, Swain was taken aback: “Wow, that’s impressive.”

Marshall had a similar reaction: “I’ve never seen her before. It was cool to watch her up there in front of me. I was like, ‘I want to catch you,’ but she did great. And she’s just a freshman? Oh my gosh, that’s phenomenal. It’ll be exciting to see what she can do by the end of the year.”

It would have been pretty good now for some of those Boston victims. On a cold, cold night, Grace Norman may have given them some warmth.

The Xenia Christian runner, you see, is missing her left foot and much of that ankle.

She wears a Flex-Foot Cheetah, the J-shaped, carbon fiber prosthetic made famous by South African runner Oscar Pistorius.

She is the only girl in the area who competes with one and she doesn’t just run track and cross country for her school, she swims and plays basketball, too. She plays trumpet in the Ambassadors’ marching band and the piano in the Praise Band for the Mt. Zion Church in Xenia. She also raises and shows Alpine goats at the Greene County Fair, has a 3.9 grade-point average and, oh yeah, at the prom, she kicked off those silver high heels so she could dance.

“She really encourages me,” said Xenia Christian senior and star athlete Michaela Nelson. “She could easily make excuses or give up, but she never does. She always gives everything she has. Watching her, you can’t help be inspired.”

Tim Norman agreed: “When she goes back to the doctors for appointments and she’s sitting in the waiting room, you see people come in who are there for one of their first appointments and they look at Grace and you can tell what they are thinking. That’s when they finally see the possibilities in life and it’s huge for them.

“The people who lost limbs in Boston. I know they’re first going to have to get over the loss. Once they can, though, they need to see examples. And it makes a difference to see someone who has done what I know I have to do.

“They need to see ordinary people doing extraordinary things. And where are they going to find that, except in a story like Grace’s?”

Born to run

Grace was born into quite an athletic family.

Tim is a competitive master swimmer and triathlete. Robin, a child psychologist who works out of the family’s Jamestown home, was a prep track star in Indiana, then ran at Purdue University and now competes in half marathons.

Older sister Bethany is one of the area’s best prep distance runners, has qualified for state four times in cross country and track and will run collegiately at Calvin College in Michigan next year. Younger sister Danielle is a budding junior high runner.

When Grace was born, she had no left foot and no big toe on her right foot — all due to amniotic band disorder. It’s a congenital situation where fetal parts in the womb — often digits or limbs — get ensnared by the fibrous bands than can cause everything from amputations, club feet and cleft palates to miscarriages.

Although they are a Christian family, Robin admitted Grace’s birth “threw us into sort of a crisis of faith” at first.

“I’m a runner,” she said. “But then I have a kid without a foot and it’s like, ‘Wait a minute. How’s that all supposed to work out, God?’”

A third band that had tightened to Grace’s left leg was surgically removed when she was 3 months old and, at 6 months, a previously undiscovered fourth band was found after Robin noticed a line around Grace’s right leg that was not tanning.

“That’s when I realized, ‘OK God, you were there because you didn’t allow that band to fully connect,’ ” Robin said. “Otherwise, she would have lost both feet.”

From the start, Grace showed she wasn’t going to let anything hold her back. At 11 months, she began trying to walk without a left foot. At 13 months, she got her his prosthetic leg and was on her way.

“She had a real strong will,’ Robin laughed. “She was my tantrum child, the only one who crawled out of the crib. Whenever someone tells Grace she can’t do something, it’s always, ‘Wanna bet?’ ”

As Grace grew up, her family nurtured that feeling.

“For me it was never like, ‘Oh you poor you little child,’ ” Grace said. “My parents stressed, ‘You’re a normal kid. A gift from God. You’re not disabled. You’re perfect and nothing will stop you. So go!’ ”

She took that drive, added some derring-do and marched into life on her terms.

“In elementary school she’d bring the playground to a complete standstill,” Robin said. “Like a lot of kids when they run around in the crushed gravel, they get a stone in their shoe. With her it was in her leg. So she’d sit down, pop the leg off, dump the rocks out, stick the leg back on and take off again.

“In kindergarten she had the boys line up to jump on her foot, so she could show them it didn’t hurt.”

Grace admitted there’s been “a time or two in my life where I thought it might be cool to have two legs. I may have prayed once to just have two legs for a day, just because I wondered what it would feel like, but it wasn’t because I felt I was missing out on something. And it was nothing I was sad about. I think I can do anything.”

No one knows that better than 17-year-old Bethany. The sisters are best friends. They share clothes, secrets and dreams.

“A few years ago some of my friends were talking about how different it would be to live with someone with a disability and I said, ‘Yeah, that would be weird,’ ” she said with a shrug. “And they just looked at me. They said, ‘You have a sister with a disability.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, I never thought of that. I’ve never seen her as anything different. She’s just Grace. It’s never been a big deal.”

Always a smile

Robin remembers Grace, as a third-grader, playing soccer and suddenly being down on the field, uncharacteristically crying.

“She goes, ‘Mom, I broke my (prosthetic) foot,’” Robin said with a smile. “She was upset she had to stop. I told the coach, ‘You need to keep a roll of duct tape handy.”

Playing basketball for Xenia Christian this season, Grace wore a normal prosthetic with no ankle mobility and broke the leg twice. Because she’s constantly putting a strain on the knee of her right leg, too, she finally will give up the sport to concentrate solely on running and swimming.

And thanks to two events last summer, she’s been able to further embrace her running possibilities. In June, she and her family attended the U.S. Paralympic Track and Field trials in Indianapolis and she met Blake Leeper, the University of Tennessee double amputee, who runs on Cheetah feet. He would go on to win a silver medal in the 400 meters and a bronze at 200 in the London Paralympics.

“He told Grace they need more girls like her on the U.S. team and that’s when she set her sights on the 2016 Games in Rio,” Robin said.

A month later Grace was back at Xenia Christian, which is connected to the big Athletes in Action campus. By chance, Genevieve Hamilton, a goalie for the Anderson University soccer team in South Carolina, drove by. She was finishing an internship with AIA and noticed Grace’s leg.

When she got out of the car, she too had a prosthetic left leg and the two young women struck an instant chord and have stayed in contact.

After those summer encounters, the family found their insurance would pay for a Cheetah foot for Grace and she finally got one in October through Optimus Prosthetics, the North Dayton company that has worked with her much of her life.

She still uses what’s called a run-way foot — it has a button on the side that adjusts the tilt of the foot to accommodate different shoes — for everyday life. And she has an older foot for basketball.

As for the light-weight Cheetah, which she wears strictly for running, it arrived two days before the district cross country meet. Grace slid it on and, as everyone now attests, she promptly ran the entire 3.1-mile race with a more natural gait and an ever-present smile. In the process, she cut nearly three minutes off her time.

“The Cheetah foot absorbs shock when she lands on it, stores energy and helps her push forward,” said Optimus prosthetist Glenn Schober. “The previous foot she had was more like landing on a brick. Although she’s still obviously at a disadvantage without a natural foot, this one gives her a more level playing field.”

‘Lot of hope’

“People are always coming up and saying, ‘I’m so sorry,’ ” Grace said with a shake of the head. “I’m like, ‘Sorry for what?’ People might look at me as having a disability, but I don’t. My leg doesn’t disable me to do anything. I can do anything an able-bodied person with two feet can do.”

Flashing a grin, she added, “I have two feet, too. Well, I kind of have more like three or four or five feet.”

With that, Grace showed that along with a warm, engaging personality, she has a quick sense of humor.

“That’s just her nature,” Tim said. “She just lights up and because of it, you light up, too.”

Robin has often seen that happen: “We’re from Jamestown, so we know quite a few folks connected to Greeneview (High School) there. The coach of their junior high team adopted Grace as their inspirational mascot. He’d point her out and say, ‘Look how she tackles everything. How can you complain about trying something?’ And now whenever we go to a meet with Greeneview, they’re all cheering Grace on.

“The Fairborn junior high coach came over last year, too, and said, ‘Grace, you just amaze me. You beat every one of my girls out here.’ ”

Robin said two Chicago-based groups — the Blade Runners running club and the Dare2tri Paratriathlon Club, which includes injured war veterans — both have made email contact with Grace and want to meet her.

“We’ve had people come up who have had family members who lost a limb and weren’t taking it very well and they’ve requested pictures of Grace running to take back,” Robin said. “And Grace embraces that. She realizes there’s a bigger purpose for her.”

After her race Friday, especially in light of what had happened in Boston four days earlier, she thought about that as she stood on the edge of the Bellbrook track.

“I know a lot of people were hurt there and lost limbs,” she said quietly. “One guy I know lost both legs. I know that’s got to be very hard.

“I don’t know if any of them will ever hear about me and I don’t even know what I’d say, but I think I could show them something. I could show them it’s not over. There’s hope. There’s lots of hope.”

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