Cedarville University freshman Grace Norman won the gold medal in the triathlon when the event debuted at the Rio Paralympics in September. Then she won a bronze medal in the 400 meters.
Norman was born without her left foot due to a condition called amniotic bands. Amniotic bands are fibrous string-like bands that restrict blood flow and can cause in vitro amputations. In Norman’s case, the bands constricted more as she grew, causing her to lose her foot. It was a shock to her parents because her foot was there in the ultrasound. As an athletic family, they were not sure what her future held.
“We had a lot of good people around us who encouraged us that there were a lot of things to help people that were born this way,” her father, Tim Norman said. “It started a lifetime for Grace of trying to figure out what the best solutions were to help her achieve her goals of being able to ambulate normally.”
Tim Norman, a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Cedarville University, is an ironman triathlete and runs triathlons regularly. His wife, Robin, is a runner. Grace’s sister, Bethany, is also a runner and a senior on Cedarville’s cross country and track team. Grace began running from a young age and began competitive running in seventh grade.
“Bethany has been a huge inspiration to me,” Grace Norman said. “I’ve always wanted to be just as fast as her.”
“It’s hard to get someone to make a commitment to do a triathlon,” he said. “She was willing to do it, and she liked it.”
Grace was always interested in the Paralympics growing up. Her dream to participate in them became real in 2012 when she and her family watched the track and field trials in Indianapolis. At that point, her times were not where they needed to be, but she began intentionally training from that time on.
To begin the qualifying process, Grace had to gain recognition by running well in races. She started locally, looking to connect with someone to help her get to the next level. She found an organisation called Dare2tri, a paratriathlon club based in Chicago. The organisation has athletes that have Paralympic quality and connections to the USA Paralympic committee.
As her times improved, Dare2tri was able to get her in the International Triathlon Union (ITU) races with international competition. Her rankings depended on her placings in the ITU circuit.
“The placings is what gets the United States a spot in the Paralympics,” Tim said. “You get a spot, and the US picks who is in that spot based on who is the fastest that particular year. Grace earned a spot on the Paralympics probably a year before she actually got nominated for the spot.”
For the 400, it was the same process. She went to the world championships where they determine who is fastest in the events, which can lead to a position on the Paralympic team. Grace earned a spot in triathlon and the 400.
“I’ve always dreamed of being in the Paralympics,” Grace said. “To see these dreams become reality is just incredible.”
Cedarville sent Grace and her parents off to Rio on Aug. 29. Grace said she was a little nervous going in as a first-time Olympian. She said her team and people from Rio were able to help her handle the pressure.
“Team USA was just incredible,” Grace said. “They are all so supportive. The people of Brazil are so friendly. They love people from the U.S. When you walk down the street they are like ‘USA!’ That was really cool.”
In Rio, Grace became the first USA triathlete to medal in the Paralympics, and she did it with a gold.
“To do it for my country was a big honor for me,” Grace said. “To make history like that, it was so cool. I crossed that finish line and there were so many emotions going through me, but definitely making history was very exciting for me.”
Her parents, as expected, were very excited for her as well.
“My wife was crying, I was crying, the head of Dare2tri was balling,” Tim said. “Once she crossed the finish line there is a relief of ‘it’s over.’ You don’t have to wonder anymore how it’s gonna turn out.”
Cedarville was also excited for her and held a welcome back party for her in the basketball gym. Cedarville coordinated plans with Grace’s parents without her knowing anything about it. When they got back, they pulled up next to a police officer, who introduced himself to Grace as her escort.
“Grace asked ‘OK Dad, what did you do wrong?’” Tim said. “She kind of got wind of it and thought it was kind of cool.”
Not even Tim and Robin anticipated the turnout of people to welcome them back. Tim said between family members coming from Indiana, Bethany being able to connect with her sister, and all of the students coming together, it was really cool.
“I don’t think there could have been a better way to bring her back,” Tim said.
Grace said what motivates her to compete is bringing glory to God.
“Ultimately, I want to use the gifts God gave me to glorify him,” Grace said. “My family has also been a huge part of my life and help motivate me every day.”
Bethany wrote her sister a note for the games that said “Never let your identity be in sports. Don’t look in the mirror and only see the Olympian. See a child of God first before you see an Olympian.” Grace said that is something she would like to continue to improve on.
“I want that to be true in my life,” Grace said. “That’s the best advice she could ever give me.”
Grace also said you can expect to see her back in the Paralympics in 2020.
Josh Burris is a senior journalism major and the sports editor for Cedars. He is interested in sports broadcasting and reporting. He enjoys watching sports, lifting, and listening to rock and rap music.