By John Bombatch
WAYNESVILLE — Grace Norman is all about transitions these days.
From Xenia Christian High School Ambassador to Cedarville University Yellow Jacket. From local triathlete to world-class competitor.
From no. 2 to no. 1.
For Norman, Sunday’s Caesar’s Creek Triathlon was all about improving her transition times from the swim to the bicycle race, and trimming seconds off of her time needed to change out of a bicycling prosthetic foot into one made especially for running.
In international competition, it’s those seconds that can mean the difference between a second-place silver medal and the Paralympic gold.
Prior to Norman’s start in the 750-meter swimming portion of the Sprint Triathlon, the race announcer told the assembled athletes of Grace’s accomplishments and how she’d recently been named to the Rio-bound U.S. Paralympics team. The nearly 200 athletes competing in the Caesar Creek Triathlon let her know they appreciated her with a warm round of applause and cheers.
The Sprint men’s category went into the Caesar’s Creek water just ahead of Norman’s group. When the guys were nearly 200 yards or so off into the distance, it was Grace’s turn in the Sprint women’s division. The soon-to-be Cedarville University freshman not only turned in the top women’s time (12:51) in the water, but she passed several of the men!
She was leading the women’s 20-kilometer bicycling portion of the Sprint Triathlon when she made a wrong turn and had veered nearly four miles off course. Despite that bit of navigational bad luck, Norman still managed to place 35th among the 66 able-bodied women with a time of 46:56 over the bike portion of the race. Her 5-kilometer running time of 21:47 in the third and final stage of the event registered as the fastest time of all the women, and was seventh quickest among the 105 men.
Norman was the only competitor in the Female Elite Open class, but her overall time of 1:23.37 would’ve been tops in her age group. She finished 22nd overall out of all 171 competitors.
“Man, you blew right by me out there! You’re amazing! Go get ‘em in Rio!” one male triathlete told her after the race. She’d just completed a Sprint Triathlon (which is a comparable distance to her international competitions), but yet she gladly took the time to meet with fellow athletes, pose for a few photos and even sign some autographs.
“I was mainly focused on going through the motions of the transitions and getting them faster. It was kinda hard here, because the distance from the beach (to the bicycle transition area) was longer than a typical paratriathlon, but here I was able to do my very best. I was happy with it,” Norman said.
She swims without the use of a prosthetic device on her left leg, but that makes it difficult for her to get across the Caesar’s Creek sand to some solid ground. Once there, she can step into a prosthetic leg specially designed for bicycling. With an assist from her father, Tim Norman. An Olympic-distance triathlete himself, Tim helped her navigate over the soft sand. Grace needed slightly under one minute to peel off her swimming wetsuit, snap on her bicycle foot and scramble up a slight hill to a holding pen where she could get her bike and helmet.
A similar transition was made from the bicycling stage to the running stage, where she needed just over a minute to change out of her bike foot and into a running foot.
Norman is currently ranked no. 2 in the world for P-44 category women in the triathlon. World no. 1 Lauren Steadman, of Great Britain, is an arm amputee. She’s in the same competitive category as Grace, however. So she doesn’t need as much transition time between events.
“Lauren has an edge over Grace in the swim at this point, the two are pretty even in the bicycle stage, but Grace has the advantage in the run,” explained Robin Norman, Grace’s mom who also happens to be the Xenia Christian cross country and track coach. “The two are within 60 seconds of each other in competitions right now, but Grace loses about 40 seconds to her in the transitions. So if Grace can improve on her transition times, she can gain an advantage over Lauren. It’s that close.”
It could be the difference between Silver and Gold.
Up next: The International Triathlon Union Paratriathlon World Championships take place July 24 in Rotterdam, Netherlands. Norman is one of 11 international competitors — including her nemesis, Lauren Steadman — in the field. Athletes from the United States, Brazil, France, Great Britain and the Ukraine will be competing.
The Paralympic Games will take place Sept. 7-18 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Norman will compete on the U.S. Track & Field team in the 400-meter run. She’ll also compete on the U.S. Triathlon team in that event. Norman is the current P-44 class world record holder in the 800-meter and 1,500-meter run.