This article was originally published in the fall 2015 issue of USA Triathlon Magazine.
Grace Norman has a busy schedule for a 17-year-old high school senior. She competes in cross country, track and swimming. She serves as a pianist at her church, is active in a 4-H Club and competes around the world in triathlon and track.
Grace, who lives in Jamestown, Ohio, does it all without a left foot, having been diagnosed at birth with congenital constriction band syndrome, a fetal abnormality that affects just 0.1 percent of newborns. Severe cases, like Grace’s, compress blood vessels and limit growth to the limb, often resulting in amputation.
Grace was fitted with her first prosthetic leg when she was 13 months old, but that did not slow down a girl seemingly born to run. Her mother, Robin, was a distance runner at Purdue. Her father, Tim, is a long-time swimmer who competes in triathlon. An engineering professor at Cedarville University, he was scheduled to compete in IRONMAN Louisville in October, his first race at that distance.
Grace dabbled in soccer, softball and basketball before turning her attention to endurance sports in seventh grade.
Running with a traditional prosthetic was awkward.
“It changes your running stride,” said Robin, who also serves as the cross country coach for Xenia Christian High, Grace’s school. “If we could fix that, I knew her times would drop.”
Three years ago the Normans attended the U.S. Paralympic Trials in Indianapolis and runners there encouraged the family to seek out a “cheetah foot,” a J-shaped carbon fiber leg that
provides a more natural feel. Two days after receiving it, Grace entered a district cross country meet and dropped two and a half minutes from her 5k time.
“I could flex my foot for the first time in my life,” said Grace, who is the middle of three daughters, all runners. “It felt like I was running on air.”
Grace also is missing much of her right big toe, though that does not affect her stride, just her choice of footwear as some shoes fit better than others. With the cheetah left foot, her times have continued to drop as she racks up more accolades. In June, she became the first amputee to medal at the Ohio high school state track meet, running the mile in 5 minutes, 14 seconds. She is the current world record holder for the 800-meter run for T44 amputees, and she holds the American record for the 1,500 meters. She’s also a member of the U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Team, and the current champion in the 400 meters.
As a paratriathlete, Grace is a two-time winner of the USA Paratriathlon National Championships and is working toward the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Competing as a paratriathlete still seems a bit unusual, she said, since she’s accustomed to competing in able-bodied triathlons in the Midwest, where she routinely produces top finishes.
“I’ve never viewed myself as disabled,” she said. “Having a prosthetic has not hindered me in anything. Competing against other amputees was new to me last year, and it’s cool seeing how
others adapt and how they’re also so fast. Racing in the able-bodied world gives me motivation, and I enjoy hearing people complain that the girl with one foot beat them.”
“Since she was little she’s heard people say, ‘Poor kid, you can’t do this,’” Robin said. “She just looks at them as if to say, ‘You want to bet?’”
Grace’s best time for a sprint triathlon (750-meter swim, 20-kilometer bike, 5-kilometer run) is 1 hour, 9 minutes. Running is her strength, but she’s made vast improvements in the swim, no small feat for someone with one foot. The bike presents a challenge from a training standpoint because she’s so busy, but she manages to squeeze in workouts on a 4-mile loop of country
roads near her home.
Like most triathletes, Grace said she doesn’t spend nearly enough time working on transitions, where she has more to contend with than able-bodied athletes. She has separate prosthetics for the bike and the run, along with a foot designed for everyday living.
Grace typically receives her own rack in transition to spread out her prosthetics. Handlers help her out of the water, where she’ll put on her bike foot immediately — she wears a liner in the
swim to save some time — and proceed to transition. During T2 she’ll switch feet again.
“I’ve gotten as fast as possible switching legs,” she said. “When I do bike-run bricks I practice changing the foot. It’s become part of my training.”
Arm amputees have an advantage over leg amputees in Paralympic competition, though it doesn’t bother Grace.
“With real legs, they can run out of the water and they don’t have to switch [legs] between the bike and the run,” she said.
“But the way I see it is that we’re never going to have a fair system between arm and leg amputees. I wouldn’t want them to split up the categories — arm and leg — because that would take away from the competition. Even if it is a bit unfair in my case, and I don’t know if that’s true, I’ll just have to get faster in transitions or in the disciplines.”
This fall, Grace will rank among the top two runners on her cross country team, posting times in the low 19-minute range for the 5k. The team consists of 17 girls, which is impressive considering the co-ed school has just 110 students. She plans to follow older sister Bethany to Cedarville University, where their father teaches.
Should Grace qualify for the Paralympics next September in Rio, she’ll miss the first two weeks of her freshman year of college. It’s a scheduling conflict she hopes becomes a reality.
“I definitely want to pursue triathlon and track at the Paralympics,” she said. “It would be dream come true.”
Pete Williams is a writer and triathlete in Clearwater, Florida.