Sam Grewe competes during the Men's High Jump T63 Final at the IPC World Para Athletics Champiobships on Nov. 14, 2019 in Dubai.
Amid a pandemic that has seen so many athletes’ preparations for the Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 derailed, Sam Grewe considers himself lucky.
The high jumper has been able to train with the University of Notre Dame track and field team since last fall while completing his pre-med studies, and even managed to compete in some meets for the Fighting Irish this spring.
But this month’s U.S. Paralympic Team Trials in Minneapolis represent a welcome return to normalcy for the Rio 2016 silver medalist in the F42 classification.
“I’ve competed able-bodied for the past year or two but I haven’t had any interactions with adaptive sports, and those are the meets that I jump the best at,” Grewe said. “There’s just a certain amount of adrenaline and intensity at Paralympic events that I just can’t really find myself matching with collegiate meets, so I’m really excited to be back in that setting and to be with the guys I’ve been jumping with for years now.”
The trials begin June 17, a week after Grewe’s 23rd birthday and seemingly a lifetime away from the event that qualified him for Rio.
Grewe remembers the 2016 trials in Charlotte as a “very, very scary experience.” Though he had won his first world championship the year before, he was still a teenager, a high school kid from Indiana unsure of where he would attend college and without a clear picture of what he wanted to do with his life.
“To be in my position now, five years later — which is kind of alarming to think about — I’ve been jumping collegiately for three years and going into trials the standard I need to jump is the starting height that I would do in college. It’s really, really reassuring to know that I’ve come that far and been able to be a lot more comfortable.
“I’ve got med school starting here soon and completed a four-year degree at Notre Dame in the time since the previous Games, so really just a totally, totally different scenario from 2016.”
Grewe also has added two more world championships, in 2017 and 2019, to maintain his nearly perfect run at international competitions — with Rio the exception that continues to drive him five years later.
He topped out at 1.86 meters in Brazil, then a personal best, while Mariyappan Thangavelu of India won gold at 1.89. At the 2019 Parapan American Games, in Lima, Peru, Grewe established a new world record at 1.90 meters and has cleared that height multiple times since then.
That consistency is perhaps the biggest difference for Grewe as he eyes another chance at gold in Tokyo. His baseline performance is higher now, giving him confidence that even though he can’t control what other competitors do — “It’s high jump; you can’t play defense,” he says — his best should be enough to at least put him in contention for gold.
Grewe still has to make his jumps, though, starting at the trials, and his preparations for the meet haven’t gone as planned. He sprained his ankle in early May, then aggravated the injury a week and a half later. That setback kept him off the track for a month altogether, but he said his form is still there and he feels as confident as he can be heading into trials.
“I’m obviously still nervous,” he said. “I’m nervous for any competition. I know how high the stakes are and I know anything’s possible when the stakes are that high — big mistakes can happen. But I’m just going to go and do what I’ve been doing for seven or eight years now.”
While that should be enough to get him to Tokyo, Grewe is also hoping he’ll have some company once he gets there. He has spent the last few years working with rising star Ezra Frech, a 16-year-old high school junior who took silver behind him at the 2019 Parapans.
Grewe believes the Californian he refers to as his “little brother” has a strong chance to make the Paralympic standard and has thought about how exciting it would be for the two of them to medal together in Tokyo.
“Or even just to be there together jumping would be so huge, to have another Team USA teammate besides me, because I’ve never had that before — I’m always the only one in my classification,” Grewe said. “So that’s really exciting for me.”
From wide-eyed teen five years ago to seasoned mentor now, everything is different for Grewe this time around. But his ultimate goal remains well within reach.
“Not that I didn’t do well (in Rio), but that was the biggest competition of all of them, and without sounding too cocky, I’ve gotten gold at every other competition except for that one,” Grewe said. “A Paralympic gold is the one thing I haven’t really done yet, so it means a lot to me to go out and try to win that.”