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Interview with Paralympic Gold Medalist, Grace Norman

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

How did you become an amputee?

I was born with a congenital condition called Amniotic Band Syndrome that took my left foot and my right big toe.

Earlier on in your life, did you participate in any sport other than track and field?

When I was younger, sports were always a big part of my life. I started off playing T-ball. Then I moved on to play soccer and basketball. It wasn’t until I started junior high school that I started running, and I started swimming competitively in high school.

Tell us the story behind you becoming a Paralympian. When did you know you were talented enough to compete at such a high level? What made you want to pursue it?

I always wanted to compete in the Paralympics ever since I was a young girl but didn’t know the avenue to get there. In 2011 I attended the track and field Paralympic trials, and that was the first time I realized this dream might actually become reality for me. As I talked to some of the Paralympic hopefuls that day, a spark in me was ignited. I was extremely excited about the opportunity I could seize in order to make my dream come true. From then on I started looking for the best avenue in order to make my dreams a reality. Track and field has always been my first love, but because of the diversity of disability categories in the Paralympics, there are only so many metal events for each category. I knew track and field was something I wanted to pursue, but triathlon was debuting in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. I knew this was my sport for these games. As far as knowing I was talented enough, after a few local races, I was able to compete at an international level and size myself up against the competition. It is never easy at that international level because you are competing with the best in the world. But I was surrounded with a team that had faith in me and was able to qualify for my first Paralympic games at the Paralympic trials in March 2016.

What physical barriers or hardships did/do you encounter when running, biking, etc…?

I am very lucky to not encounter a ton of physical hardships when training. A few challenges I face are more revolved around balance issues. My right side likes to take over a bit more than my left side, causing some hip flexor weaknesses on both sides. When running, I can’t do super long mileage at this point because of the imbalances in my hips that cause pain at around 8 miles. Another interesting challenge I face is whenever I gain or lose weight, my training legs seem to not fit as well, and I have to deal with a little bit more bruising and slipping of the prosthetics.

Describe your support system and things that you do to combat the mental side of things.

At this point, my support system revolves around my family and my coach. I have been blessed with an extremely supportive family, and I’m so thankful that they are with me through all the trials and tribulations (especially in 2020). My Coach plays a huge role in making sure that I am taking care of myself physically and mentally as well as making sure my training is adequate and keeps me ready for competition whenever it comes. Faith Helps me know that there’s something bigger than myself out there and that I was created for a purpose. I strive to fulfill that purpose daily.

Take us through what a typical training day looks like. How many hours do you put in? What types of workouts are you doing to prepare? What about your diet for competition?

I normally start the day with an easy run around 45 minutes. Then mid day I will do a bike workout that lasts anywhere between 90 minutes to 3 hours. Then I end the day with a technique-based swim. Strength work is integrated throughout the week as well. Depending on the training focus, certain disciplines will take more priority than the others. Right now with no races in the 2020 year, we have kind of fallen back into a base-building focus, so not a lot of intensity but building a great base so we can start putting in the work getting ready for Tokyo 2021. As far as training hours per week, I average around 17 to 20 hours a week. My diet does play a huge role in my training. It helps balance and restore my energy for the next day. Depending on the goal of the training phase whether I am losing, building, or maintaining weight, diet does play a huge role. I try to eat relatively healthy foods and cook mainly every night. I try to incorporate red meats at least 2 to 3 times per week to help with my iron levels and make sure I get my greens in.

What effect did the postponement of the 2020 games have on you?

The initial effects of the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic games was pretty devastating on me. It was right in the heart of quarantine, and it was a rough time for everyone. So many things have been taken away for me including my graduation from college, starting to work as a nurse, my last track season for college, and shifted my whole directive for goals leading into this summer. After I had time to process everything and think about what the postponement of the games meant, I came to the conclusion that it was actually to my benefit. I now have a whole other year to better myself and improve on my weaknesses and strengths and go into 2021 a much stronger and more prepared athlete.

What has been your proudest moment so far in your athletic career?

I would have to say winning the gold medal in Rio 2016 Paralympic games. I was the first woman to cross the finish line in the Paralympic Triathlon in history. I was also the first USA female to win a Paralympic gold medal in triathlon.

What prosthesis are you wearing, and how does it assist you in competing?

Right now on a daily basis I will use four different prosthetics. The first one I’m wearing is my everyday walk around prosthetic that looks as much as it can like my other leg. This one is not athletic-based and is solely for comfort and luxe. My second prosthetic that I use daily is my running prosthetic. This is an Ossur blade and is extremely helpful in running as it evens out my legs and makes my left leg do as much work as my right leg. The third prosthetic that I use daily is for cycling. This prosthetic is nice because the cleat is mounted directly on the bottom of the foot component and is able to clip into my bike pedals so I don’t lose any power transmission between my bike prosthetic and the pedal. And finally the last leg that I use is for lifting and hiking. This leg enables me to have more of a dynamic walking ability and evens out the pressure between my right and left leg when lifting.

Has there been a time when someone mistreated you because you were “different.” How did you handle it?

I haven’t been mistreated so much as judged. When most people see a runner with a prosthetic, they either think that you are slow or that you must have been through a trauma. When I am faced with questions or judgment on my ability when it comes to running with a prosthetic, I take it with grace and let my results speak for themselves. I try to educate as much as possible when appropriate as far as the abilities of athletes with disabilities are concerned and try my best to raise the bar.

Do you have any advice or words of wisdom that you want to share with other amputees?

Look what’s out there and do your research; technology has come so far with prosthetics that it is incredible what they can do and what they can give you. Always dream bigger than what you think you can accomplish and work towards those dreams.

What tends to impede your success or progress?

The biggest challenge that I have to deal with in terms of my prosthetic is just changing them in the middle of a triathlon. I use two different prosthetics during a triathlon, and there are certain things that I just can’t get back during a race when it comes to changing my prosthetic. But the different prosthetics are used to help maximize my efficiency on the bike and the run respectively, and I just have to except the fact that I will lose a few seconds in order to change the prosthetics between the two disciplines.

Since most of us will never get to experience being at (or competing in) the Paralympics, describe what it was like to be there. Where did you stay, how long were you there, who did you meet, how did it feel to be on that podium, etc…?

The Paralympic games are unique to any other competition. I was a very young athlete at 18 years old when I competed in my first Paralympic games. It was such an incredible experience; one that I will not soon forget. I attended the opening ceremonies but only walked and did not watch the actual ceremonies. I sadly was not able to attend the closing ceremonies as I had to return back to the states to start my freshman year of college. I was in the Paralympic village for four days prior to my event. I only was at the Village before the event and then moved out to a hotel closer to my race venue. The village itself was a unique experience to say the least. There was a massive dining hall with food from all different countries. Your country’s building is shared with another country. There were interesting plumbing stories (haha) and great team camaraderie within your sports’ suite. The race itself was incredible being on that podium and hearing your National Anthem played. It’s just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, one that is difficult to put into words. I was extremely blessed and humbled and honored to be on that podium and hearing my national anthem played among the streets of Copacabana Beach.

Who are you outside of competing? What are some of your interests, likes/dislikes, quirks, idiosyncrasies, etc...?

If I wasn’t competing in triathlon at this moment, I am also a registered nurse. I am holding off working until after the 2021 Paralympic games but am excited to start that part of my life. I also love music and play piano in order to relieve stress and relax. I also like to dabble in baking and cooking and like to express my creativity in that way.

Technology has come so far. If you were given a chance to have a leg transplant and no longer be an amputee, would you go through with it?

It is no secret that I have always wondered what it would be like to have two real feet. Not having to deal with prosthetics seems like the easier option. However, having a prosthetic has opened up so many doors to me and given me incredible opportunities to share my story and reach thousands of people and be an inspiration to many. I think I would like to experience what it would be like to have 2 feet for a day, maybe a week. When it comes down to it, I know I was created like this for a reason and a purpose, and I love being an amputee.

What are your goals for Tokyo?

My goals for Tokyo are to repeat my gold medal performance from Rio, be the best that I can be on that day, enjoy the moment and the process, and take everything in as each game's experience is so different.

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