With Grace Norman, looks can be deceiving.
She’s not “perfectly normal.”
And that has nothing to do with the fact she is missing her left ankle and foot due to an amniotic band disorder at birth. It also took her right big toe and nearly her right leg, as well.
Norman, though, is a rarity not because of what she’s missing, but because of all she has gained in her young life.
She is the most world-traveled, 23-year-old athlete in the Miami Valley, having competed on five different continents and all across the U.S.
She’s in an elite competitor, having already having won a gold and a bronze medal at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympic Games in 2016.
Tonight she defends her gold when she competes in the triathlon at the Tokyo Paralympics. The NBC Olympic channel will air the event live, beginning at 7:31 p.m. Dayton time.
Cedarville University – from which Norman graduated in 2020 with a nursing degree – will hold a watch party at the Student Center that will include her mom, Robin, and her dad, Tim, a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at the school.
Norman comes into the triathlon rated No. 3 in the world in the PTS5 (high functioning) category behind Lauren Steadman and Claire Cashmore, both of Great Britain.
Cashmore has competed in four previous Paralympics and won gold and silver medals in swimming events in Rio.
Steadman, the paratriathlon favorite in Rio, missed a buoy in the swimming part of the event and briefly swam the wrong way. She finished with a silver medal.
Both of the Brits have an advantage against Norman because they are missing a hand. So when they finish the swimming portion of the event, they simply can run out of the water, jump on their bikes and pedal off in the cycling part of three-pronged race.
Grace Norman working out on the track at the Olympic Village in Tokyo. She competes Saturday evening (Dayton time) in the paratriathlon, the event where she won the gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics. CONTRIBUTED
Norman, who swims without a prosthetic, is carried from the water and must sit and dry off her upper left leg before fitting on her cycling leg and getting on her bike. That all takes valuable time.
When she runs, she puts on yet another leg, this one fitted with a J-shaped, carbon fiber Cheetah Flex foot.
A runner at heart – she competed in cross country and distance track events at Cedarville – that’s where she makes up time against Steadman and Cashmore.
All her legs are provided by Optimus Prosthetics, the Dayton-based company founded by John Brandt, the Dayton Christian School and Wright State grad.
He first started working with her in her pre-kindergarten days when he was at a different company. He started Optimus in 2007 and for many of those years since, former Optimus prosthetist Glenn Schober was Grace’s go-to man at the company.
It’s been a perfect marriage for Norman and the North Dixie Drive firm.
As Norman said in a video testimonial she made before the Rio Games:
“I would not be going to the Olympic Games without Optimus.”
‘Nothing held her back’
At 11 months, she already was toddling around the house, “walking on her stub,” Tim Norman has said. “Nothing held her back. Watching her then, I wondered what she’d be like once she got a prosthetic.” Two months later she did and since then she’s propelled herself through life.
She’s come a long way from those days in the third grade when she broke her prosthetic foot playing soccer and her mom told the coach he should duct tape it.
Brandt said he and Tim Norman especially connected because “Tim was an engineer and the chair of the department and his mind was always spinning.
“Back then prosthetics, especially pediatric, didn’t have a lot of componentry available. A lot of companies in the industry weren’t putting their resources into it because kids just keep growing.”
Someone like Grace was outgrowing a leg almost every year.
Brandt said Tim was full of questions: “How can we design something better? How can we do better and get Grace into different activities?”
When Grace got into swimming, he said Tim wondered if they could make a prosthetic with a fin on it or maybe a foot that fanned out into a fin. Brandt said they did design something like that.
Tim’s classes also became involved in projects in which Optimus helped them out.
The real game changer for Grace was when she was fitted with the Cheetah Flex leg like the one once-famed South African Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius had used.
The Xenia Christian freshman who grew up in the country outside Jamestown got the Cheetah two days before a cross country meet.
“The first time I tried the Cheetah foot I flew forward with such speed and bounce I scared myself,” she once said. “For the first time in my life, I could flex my foot. It was like running on air. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I wonder how fast this thing can go?’”
Within 48 hours she found out. In a 3.1 mile race, she dropped 2 ½ minutes off her time.
From that day forward she’s gotten faster and faster.
At the Rio Games, 18-year-old Grace was the youngest of Team USA’s 247 athletes. And she was one of just two Paralympians who competed in two sports. Along with gold in the triathlon, she took a bronze medal in the track competition’s 400 meters.
When the Tokyo Games were postponed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she changed coaches last October. Now under the tutelage of Greg Mueller, she’s especially improved her cycling times and is said to be in peak form for tonight’s competition.
John Brandt (left), founder of Optimus Prosthetics, the Dayton-based company that now has offices in Cincinnati and Columbus, too, and Glenn Schober, the clinical manager and certified prosthetist who handled Grace’s leg needs for many years until he recently left the company, wish Grace good luck in Tokyo. She competes Saturday evening (Dayton time) in the paratriathlon, the event where she won the gold medal at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Paralympics. CONTRIBUTED
‘She could do anything’
Before getting to Tokyo, she trained 10 days in the heat in Kona, Hawaii.
In recent days she’s worked out on the Tokyo course, where she competed in 2019.
After she got back from the Rio Games, she showed up at a special get-together put on by Optimus for some of the other everyday people they fit with prosthetics.
It was a big deal for everybody, including Brandt:
“To be honest, working with someone like Grace is probably a once in a lifetime experience for me. She’s such a gifted athlete. She could do anything.”
He knows she’s not “normal.”
But questions like the one she got when she was 17 won’t likely arise at the airport anymore.
She still carries her various legs – sometimes as many as four – onto the plane with her. With all the custom work that’s been done on them, she’s not going to risk checking them and then having them damaged or lost in transit.
“On her last trip, the bag she carries them in ripped,” Tim said. “She had to go buy another one and one of her friends stitched her name and the U.S. flag on it.”
That could give a hint that she’s not “normal.”
Another gold medal draped around her neck would erase any question.