By: Sean Cartell
SEC Digital Network
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Grace Heymsfield is back and better than ever, literally. After sitting out the 2011 season due to medical reasons, the Arkansas runner has returned in full force and is leading the No. 12 Razorbacks into Saturday’s NCAA Cross Country Championships at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer State Park in Louisville.
Rewind to the spring of 2009 and Heymsfield was capping her prep career as one of the most decorated athletes in Arkansas high school history. The Elkins, Ark., native became the first female in state history to break five minutes in the 1,600 meters, clocking a time of 4:59.51. She also won three state cross country titles and was the state champion in the 1,600m her senior season.
Heymsfield’s father Ernest is a longtime associate professor in civil engineering at the University of Arkansas, yet it wasn’t a given that the decorated athlete would decided to become a Razorback, despite her prowess and the longstanding tradition of the Arkansas program.
“I was really familiar with the school,” Heymsfield said. “My house is only like 15 minutes away from the campus. That was something I considered – I didn’t know if I wanted to be that close to home, but it just got to the point where everything except the distance was what I wanted. It was just too much to say no to.”
Arkansas head coach Lance Harter, now in his 23rd season leading the Razorback women, was extremely eager to add Heymsfield, one of the finest athletes in state history, to his roster.
“We were really, really pleased to have her come here,” Harter said. “She was definitely looking at her options and we wanted her to be a Razorback. A lot of times when your dad is a professor at a school and you have lived in that town for the majority of your life, there is a lot of motivation to see what is on the other side of the mountain.”
Heymsfield quickly made her way into the Arkansas lineup, earning SEC All-Freshman honors in cross country in 2010 and finishing among the top 40 at the league championships. She transitioned into track season, where she competed at the SEC Indoor Championships and continued her strong performances outdoors before having to have an unexpected surgery.
“My freshman year, I think it was like three weeks before the conference meet, I had an emergency appendectomy and while they were in there, they realized I had some other complications that were causing some problems.”
Heymsfield would again need surgery at the season’s end to repair an intestinal issue.
“She had an emergency appendectomy her freshman year and when they went in, they couldn’t find her appendix,” Harter said. “It had flipped under her intestines; essentially, her intestines were in the wrong place. After the outdoor track season, they had to operate to make her feel a lot better.”
Heymsfield’s successes on the track would postpone the medical procedure that she needed to have. That summer of 2011, Heymsfield logged a personal-best steeplechase time of 10:40.31 at the USA Junior Championships to place second and qualify for the Pan Am Junior Championships. She traveled to Pan Ams that summer, where she competed for Team USA and ran to a silver medal (10:47.01) in the steeplechase.
“She made a junior qualifying mark in the steeplechase, so she got to go to juniors and they were going to delay until after that,” Harter said. “Then she made the Junior Pan Am team, so when she finally finished track season, she had surgery and we sat her for cross country.”
Sitting on the sidelines a year ago wasn’t an easy thing for Heymsfield, a fierce competitor. Having to watch as her teammates completed the season with a 14th-place finish at the NCAA Championships a year ago only ignited a fire within Heymsfield to come back even stronger in 2012.
“It was really hard,” Heymsfield said. “Obviously I knew it was something I couldn’t really control, but it was hard to watch the girls last year really excel and not get to be a part of it out on the course. We had such a strong team last year and Kristen Gillespie really led our team. Just being around that and seeing how much potential this group of girls had just got me excited for this year.”
Even though Heymsfield wasn’t always sold on the idea of attending the University of Arkansas, she now takes extreme pride in competing for the university with which she grew up.
“So much pride,” Heymsfield said. “Everyone around Fayetteville has so much Arkansas pride and it’s great to see people that I knew in middle school and high school support this team because they love the Razorback tradition so much.”
Regardless of her talent and the accolades she has received on the track, Heymsfield is first and foremost a student. She has an interest in dietetics and hopes to pursue a career in that field.
“I think the good thing about Arkansas is that academic excellence is kind of expected,” she said. “School comes first and being an athlete is second. I’ve always just made sure to take care of my school work first and everything else is just icing on the cake. I am in the dietetics program here. I’ve always wanted to help people in a rehabilitation way, but I didn’t want to do kinesiology or pre-med. I have just always found it all pretty interesting.”
Harter says that Heymsfield’s focus on academics is central to her character and, along with her incredible consistency, those two traits have made her an important asset to her teammates.
“She’s very, very gifted,” Harter said. “She is more gifted academically than she is athletically. I think that’s just the way she was raised. Her brother is also here on an academic scholarship and is a redshirt freshman on the men’s team. It was very much emphasized in her home life and she’s very strong in her faith. She’s just incredibly even-keeled and level-headed. She is the epitome of consistency.
“Because she’s so even-keeled, a lot of people look to her for advice and insight,” Harter continued. “She’s kind of mature beyond her years. That just accentuates people gravitating to her. She has a very warm personality and she’s never met a stranger.”
Harter has big goals for his pupil and believes that, with more experience in collegiate competition, Heymsfield could achieve great heights.
“There’s definitely aspirations by her and myself to be an All-American,” Harter said. “I think she has that capability as she becomes more experienced. The only thing she lacks is experience at the top. In track, she’s a steeplechaser and there’s some technical flaws. If we can get those corrected, she’s going to make a very demonstrative leap from last year. Last year, she ran 10:13 in the steeple, but she has the capability to make a giant leap forward this track season.”
For Heymsfield, she is just taking one meet at a time. The next meet is Saturday’s NCAA Cross Country Championships, where she and her teammates have aspirations of recording the program’s first top-10 finish since 2006.
“All of us have come in with this mindset that we want to be a top-10 team at nationals,” Heymsfield said. “It has just been a real group effort this season. I’m just taking it as it comes and am going to do my part this weekend at nationals. We all want that top-10 finish so badly and I think we will have an even better team next year, so I’m very excited about that.”
Heymsfield is back and, most importantly, feeling her best.
“I’m actually feeling so much better than I was all throughout high school and my freshman year,” she said. “I just had a lot of complications and I was trying to figure out what medicines could hold things at bay. I’m a real believer in things happening for a reason and that all kind of lit the fire for this season. Maybe that’s why it happened.”
When the gun goes off Saturday morning at Tom Sawyer Park, Harter will be pleased to have Heymsfield competing for his team. He knows she is among the most gifted of athletes, but he is also aware that, more importantly, she is one of the finest teammates for which he could ask.
“She is just a young lady that everyone would want to have on their team and everyone would want to have as a friend,” Harter said. “She’s true blue in both respects.”