It was the dinner hour at Cedarville University a couple of evenings ago and students were flocking to the Stevens Student Center from all parts of the campus.
Some three dozen skateboards had been propped against the front of the building or placed in special racks on opposite sides of the glass doors. Two dozen bicycles had been left out there, too.
As students walked in and headed back to the dining hall, they passed an ever-changing video board that trumpeted one event after another:
New Student Talent Show
Bible Trivia Night
Study Abroad Fair
Men’s Soccer vs. Ohio Dominican
Library After Hours Game Night
When Grace Norman came in she easily passed as just another student. That is unless you noticed her blue T-shirt that promoted an Olympics and Paralympics event held last month in Tokyo – home of the 2020 Games.
Norman had competed in the event, just as she almost certainly will in the 2020 Paralympics, too.
And if you’d check her over-stamped passport, you’d see she’s been a regular to Japan the past few years. In fact, she competed there just three months earlier at an International Triathlon Union (ITU) world paratriathlon event in Yokohama.
That was one of her many stops this summer. She competed in Montreal and Long Beach, California, did extensive training sessions in both Colorado Springs at the Olympic Training Center and in Salt Lake City, Utah with her coach Wesley Johnson and then – just 19 days ago in Lausanne, Switzerland – she won a bronze medal at the ITU Paratriathlon World Championships.
The 21-year-old Norman – a senior nursing student at Cedarville and a track and cross country runner for the Yellow Jackets – is one of the most accomplished and well-traveled athletes from the Miami Valley.
Born with an amniotic band disorder on her left leg that cost her her foot and ankle – and her right big toe — she grew up embracing sports and eventually Optimus Prosthetics of Dayton fitted her with a J-shaped, carbon fiber, Cheetah prosthetic that has helped her stride into stardom.
She won a gold medal in the paratriathlon at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games in 2016 and then – as one of only two U.S. athletes competing in two sports – won bronze in the 400 meters.
She’s a five-time medalist – including two golds – at the ITU paratriathlon world championships, has twice won gold at the U.S. Nationals and in the past few years has competed across the world from Australia to Qatar, Netherlands, Mexico, Canada, Brazil twice and Japan several times.
And she’s a marquee figure at this year’s U.S. Air Force Marathon, which will be run Saturday morning, but is preceded by several events.
As part of the marathon expo, Norman and physical therapist Andrea Kinsinger conducted a mobility clinic for lower extremity amputees Thursday afternoon at the Nutter Center and will do so again today from noon to 1:30 p.m. in the Berry Room.
Norman also is slated to join Bob Schul — the fabled West Milton-raised distance runner who remains the only American ever to win Olympic gold in the 5,000 meters, a feat he accomplished at the 1964 Games in Tokyo – as a guest speaker at this morning’s Breakfast of Champions at the Fairborn Holiday Inn.
But the other evening Norman was strictly a college student, albeit one who’s on the Dean’s List. She’s finishing her nursing courses – next semester she’ll job shadow at an area hospital – and will graduate in the spring.
This fall she’s running cross country and in the second semester she’ll compete in indoor and outdoor track. Although raised on a farm near Jamestown, she’s lived on campus all four years and is a regular at the dining hall.
Before dinner she sat at a side table and during the conversation described herself as “a broke college student.”
Yet a few minutes later she was talking about competitions around the globe and her ongoing rivalry with two of the world’s other top paratriathletes, Lauren Steadman and Clair Cashmore, both of Great Britain.
And that begged the question:
“So what are you – a broke college student or an elite international athlete?”
She started to laugh and finally said: “Both.”
While she admitted “it’s really cool to get to see the world at such a young age,” she didn’t mention the numerous perks that have come with that high profile.
She was honored by President Barack Obama at the White House, was nominated for an ESPY Award as the Best Female Athlete with a Disability – a nod that got her a walk on the red carpet in Los Angeles — and she was invited to sing with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.’
But one thing she’s not gotten for competing is a paycheck.
“Because I’m running in college I can’t accept endorsements and all that,” she said. “So yeah, I am a broke college student.”
And yet unlike a lot of college basketball and football standouts who leave school early to cash in on their skills, Norman is determined to get her degree before turning pro.
“The way I see it, athletics is an amazing opportunity in life, but you can only be so good for so long and you need a back-up plan,” she said.
“If for some reason you can’t follow your dream – if you’re injured or something – you have to have something to live off of. I want to be a nurse because I love helping people and I also know it’s a way I can support myself.
“You can’t just live off your has-beens and what-ifs.”
Athletics and education
But then that’s never been her way.
Her parents are athletic – her mom, Robin, ran track at Purdue, her dad, Tim, does triathlons – and both embrace education and a profession.
Her mom is the track coach at Legacy Christian High School and a psychologist. Her dad is a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Cedarville.
In high school, Norman was a three-sport star who was also a trailblazer.
Swimming without her prosthetic against able-bodied boys, she won the 500 meters at the Metro Buckeye Conference meet. In track she became the first female amputee in Ohio history to make it onto the podium at the state track meet.
As a 16-year-old in 2014 she won her first national title, taking the USA paratriathlon championship. And once she upset Steadman and won in Rio, the titles and the acclaim have just kept coming.
Still she’s the youngest of the very elite paratriathletes in the world. Steadman is 26. Cashmore is 31. Gwladys Lemoussu of France is 30 and Canada’ Kamylle Frenette is 23.
“In our sport you don’t peak until your upper 20s and 30s,” Norman said. “You can only build so much muscle when you’re young, so as I get older, I’ll get stronger. And, hopefully, better.”
‘I don’t need to be a big name’
When it came time for college Norman said she only considered Cedarville. While her dad taught there and her older sister, Bethany, had gone there and run for the Yellow Jackets, she said there was more to her decision than that:
”They have an amazing nursing program and it’s a Christian university, a place where I could follow my faith. And they have a great distance program in track and cross country.”
At Cedarville she runs against able-boded athletes and at the Collegiate Club National Championship Triathlon in Tempe, Arizona, she was the only amputee and was competing at distances twice as long as she usually does and yet she finished 26th of 477 competitors.
The other day none of that seemed to cause a ripple among the other students around her.
Part of it is her low key approach and part of it, she said, is that she’s a senior.
“Except for my class, most of the younger students don’t know any of this and I’m fine with that,” she said quietly. “I don’t need to be a big name or anything like that.
“The people who do know me know what I can do.”
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