It’s still two days before she begins her journey to the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and two weeks until she competes in a pair of events there, but Grace Norman already has gotten two rousing, full-house ovations from the crowd this month.
The most recent came last Wednesday evening after the first day of classes for the fall semester at Cedarville University.
The student body had gathered at the Jeremiah Chapel on campus for its daily service and that’s when Grace — an 18-year-old freshman from nearby Jamestown who’ll study nursing and run cross and track for the Yellow Jackets — was introduced to the crowd.
The school has never had an athlete compete in the Olympics or the Paralympics.
“They announced my name and that I was going to Rio and what I’d be competing in,” she said quietly. “Everyone was like ‘Whooa!’… And they all clapped.”
A couple of weeks before that she got the same reception in Salt Lake City when she sang with the world famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
She was out in Utah training for two weeks with her triathlon coach, Wesley Johnson, who runs the Balanced Art Multisport (BAM) program in Sandy, a Salt Lake City suburb. While there she said she stayed with a family that had connections to the choir and was told how it sometimes takes in guest vocalists.
Grace — who had sung with the Xenia Christian High School group “His Preeminence” and also has been a keyboardist and singer for her Mt. Zion Church on Shepherd Road in Xenia — was up for the challenge.
Although her appearance may not have been as trumpeted as some of the choir’s past guests — from Gladys Knight and Natalie Cole to actress Angela Lansbury and the Sesame Street Muppets — she was well received.
“I got to sit up with the choir for a Thursday night rehearsal and it was just a phenomenal experience,” she said. “I was surrounded by 360 amazing singers and they made me feel welcome.
“They had me stand and they read my bio and everyone clapped and cheered.”
She sang second soprano on a number of pieces, including “Somewhere” from West Side Story, “Look At the World” by John Rutter and the time-honored hymn “Give Said The Little Stream.”
So was she nervous to sing alongside one of the best known choirs in the world?
She shook her head:
“I figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. The lady next to me was very sweet and helped me with the music. To be surrounded by that many people, you just have to have confidence and have some fun with it. I just listened for the first couple of seconds to get the hang of it and then I just sang out.
“When you get put into an experience like that you don’t hold back.”
That’s the motto Grace has adhered to her whole life and one she’ll especially follow in Rio.
She is one of the youngest of the 267 athletes the United States will send to the Paralympic Games and just she and 27-year-old Allysa Seely will do double duty in the triathlon and in track and field.
They will be in different disability classes in the triathlon (the first at the Paralympic Games), and in track, Grace will run the 400 meters while Seely will do the 200.
Grace is considered one of the favorites in the triathlon. She won the 2016 world championship in Rotterdam, Netherlands in late July after 23-year-old defending champ Lauren Steadman of Great Britain — her chief rival — crashed on the bike course.
Even without Steadman’s misfortune, Grace — who has pared her times drastically in the past year — may have won in Rotterdam. And that makes their Rio showdown on Sept. 11 one of the more anticipated of the Games.
Because the International Paralympic Committee banished the entire Russian team from Rio for its connections to the country’s state-sponsored doping scheme (a banishment upheld five days ago when the Russian appeal was denied), the Games’ schedule has been reconfigured with the addition of new athletes taking the place of the exiled Russians.
Because of that, Grace said, the 400 prelim heat she is in has been moved to the evening of Sept. 11, a few hours after her triathlon is completed. And the 400 finals are a day later.
“My mindset right now is just to put all my focus into the triathlon, and then take a few hours to relax and regroup and make it through my heat into the (400) finals for the next day,” she said.
“I’m not going to worry about it … I’ll be satisfied with whatever God gives me on race day.”
Then, with a moment’s silence and a small smile, she admitted:
“But I’m going to go for it.”
Grace seemed to inhale that mantra with her first breath.
Although born without a left ankle and foot and missing her right big toe due to an amniotic band disorder where fetal parts in the womb, often digits or limbs, get ensnared in the fibrous bands, she has never sat back in life.
Robin Norman has said of the three girls she and husband Tim have — Bethany is the oldest, Danielle the youngest — that Grace was the only one to constantly crawl out of her crib and explore on her own.
At 11 months, without a left foot, Grace began trying to walk. Two months later she had her first prosthetic.
Once mobile, she has pursued as much as possible in her life. She was always a top student involved in music, church, 4-H projects — from goats and pigs to sewing, baking and modeling and most of all athletics.
As a high school junior, she made Ohio history when she became the first amputee to qualify for the state track meet, where she finished eighth in the 1,600 meters.
At the Metro Buckeye Conference swim meet that year — against a field of both boys and girls, all able-bodied — she won the 500-meter event even though she was kicking with one foot.
Her dad, an engineering professor at Cedarville University, has done triathlons and just three years ago Grace followed him into the sport.
In 2014 she won a national paratriathlon title and then took silver medals at the 2015 World Championships in Chicago and at an international test event in Rio de Janeiro last summer.
Before Steadman crashed on the biking part of the World Championships last month, Grace had all but erased the Brit’s usual advantage, which comes in the swimming.
In part that’s been because Grace must be carried from the water and she then has to fit on one of the two different prosthetic legs (there’s one for cycling, one for running) while Steadman, missing her right hand and wrist, simply can run to her bike.
Coming out of the water this time, Grace was nine seconds behind the defending champ. And she ended up winning the event by over four minutes.
“It will be a big battle between Lauren and me in Rio,” Grace said. “She couldn’t finish at the world championships this year, so it wasn’t that fair for her. That’s why I’m looking forward to this one.”
Then again, Grace already has won gold this summer.
Just last month her pig, Tucker, took first place in his class at the Greene County Fair.
“Some of the other trophies I won there this year I donated back to the fair — my sister Danielle did, too — but I kept the one for Tucker,” Grace said.
“It’s got that little gold pig on the top.”
Cheered on Murphy
Grace leaves Tuesday for Pensacola, Florida and a pre-Rio training camp for the eight-member American paratriathlon team. Five days later the group heads to Houston for the Team USA processing and then a flight to Brazil.
Along with her bags, she must also pack up her Quintana Roo tri-bike, spare tires and three extra legs besides the one she wears to travel. One is for biking. Another, a J-shaped carbon fiber Cheetah, is for distance running and a more-springy Cheetah Xtend is for the 400 meters.
Although there has been much talk recently about budget cutbacks at the Rio Paralympic Games and how it might hamper some of the 176 competing countries, Grace said she knew nothing of that and didn’t seemed concerned.
“I can’t wait for the opening ceremonies and marching out in front of the world to represent my country,” she said. “I’m very excited. Very honored. I know it’s not just about me and my race now, it’s about my whole country.”
She said some of the fever was stoked as she watched the just-completed Rio Olympic Games on TV. She was able to see the triathlon venue she competed on last year and also got plenty of glimpses of the Olympic Stadium, where she’ll run the 400.
It will be the biggest arena she has run in, although she did compete in the 40,000-seat Khalifa International Stadium in Doha, Qatar last year.
At the Rio Games she said she especially followed the gold medal exploits of swimmers Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, gymnast Simone Biles, sprinter Allyson Felix and triathlete Gwen Jorgensen.
“I really liked watching Clayton Murphy in the 800,” she said of her fellow Ohioan who won the bronze medal.
They have a lot of similarities. Like her, Murphy is from a small southwest Ohio town and school (Tri-Village High in New Madison) and he, too, unbeknownst to her, grew up on a farm and raised 4-H pigs. And like her, he competed in high school cross country and track.
“What he did in Rio was phenomenal,” she said. “I watched his (heats) and I watched the final. We were all gathered around the TV, just screaming and cheering and clapping.”
And that seems only right. After being cheered herself by so many the past few weeks, she did the same for someone else.
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