NCAA Track:

Heymsfield finds success in new event

By: Paul Boyd
Published: Tuesday, June 10, 2014
Arkansas runner Grace Heymsfield competes in the steeplechase Friday, May 31, 2014 at the NCAA Track and Field West Preliminaries at John McDonnell field in Fayetteville.
Photo by Michael Woods
Arkansas runner Grace Heymsfield competes in the steeplechase Friday, May 31, 2014 at the NCAA Track and Field West Preliminaries at John McDonnell field in Fayetteville.

— Grace Heymsfield never even heard anything about the steeplechase until she went to college.

She was a 22-time state champion in cross country and track at Elkins but found her niche at Arkansas with the nearly two-mile race that includes 35 jumps — seven over water — in 7.5 laps around the track.

Arkansas women’s track and cross country coach Lance Harter suggested she try the event, and it’s worked out nicely.

She made a breakthrough after her freshman year in the event, earning a spot on the U.S. junior national team. Now she’s become one of the top female collegiate steeplechasers in the country.

Heymsfield finished seventh in the NCAA Track and Field Championships a year ago in the event and will be aiming higher when she closes her collegiate track career with the semifinals in the steeplechase on Wednesday evening in Eugene, Ore.

Heymsfield is the Southeastern Conference champion in the steeplechase and the school record-holder at Arkansas.

Harter said her competitive spirit and championship pedigree served Heymsfield well, even though it might not have come against top-notch competition in high school.

“A winner’s a winner,” Harter said. “I believe she had that in her gut. That’s shown here. It’s always been a case where her take is ‘If you’re going to beat me, you’re going to have to run your tail off to do it.’”

Harter also acknowledged she’s become a natural in a tough event.

“The steeplechase is probably the most physically challenging event in track and field,” Harter said. “She’s migrated to that event with a great deal of success. She’s big and powerful and able to handle the barriers and the water as well as anybody in the U.S.”

She’s able to keep her focus in the steeplechase because of the way the event is structured with the 35 different barriers.

“It’s just easier for me to focus barrier to barrier and lap to lap,” Heymsfield said. “In the flat races, it’s harder for me to stay focused. In the steeplechase, it’s not really an option not to be focused. It’s easier to get in a rhythm jumping as often as you do in the event.”

Heymsfield said her time at Arkansas has been very special with many big moments. Helping Arkansas to the SEC Conference title outdoors this spring will be a highlight, as well as being a part of the NCAA champion distance medley relay team earlier this year.

Proximity to family has also been a big deal since Elkins is only a few miles from Fayetteville.

“It’s been awesome to be so close to home,” Heymsfield said. “Having that support has been a blessing. Even though I’ve grown up around it, I didn’t really embrace the Razorback culture, but being here and having so much pride in this school has been really cool. I’m always going to have that with me.”

Heymsfield is also a strong 1,500-meter runner and could have a future in that event, too, Harter said. She became the first female in Arkansas high school track history to break five minutes in the mile run in her senior year.

But her future on the track is uncertain, after this week.

Harter’s convinced she could have an Olympics in her future, if she decides to continue running competitively. Heymsfield hasn’t decided whether she will continue to compete. She will graduate in December and will look to obtain a master’s degree, but Heymsfield isn’t sure where.

No matter what she chooses to do, Heymsfield will be a success on or off the track, Harter said.

“She’s unique,” Harter said. “She’s so multitalented. I really hope she decides to stay with the sport a few more years. She’s excellent in the classroom, and she’ll have to weigh all those things.”