May 06, 2014

Triathlete Shows Power of Commitment

Grace Rowse. Photo by Oscar Ricardo Silva

Texas junior Grace Rowse competes in triathlons seven years after a skiing accident left her with numerous physical and mental ailments. Photo by Oscar Ricardo Silva.

By Sebastian Herrera
For Reporting Texas

There was a time when Texas junior triathlete Grace Rowse could not even walk a few feet without feeling exhausted.

After a vicious snow skiing accident almost seven years ago, Rowse’s chances at a normal life were bleak. Her mental and physical ailments looked insurmountable. Never could she have imagined that one day she would be a part of the University of Texas triathlon team, in a place far removed from the accident that almost took her life.

“I went from so little to so much,” Rowse, who turned 21 on April 1, said recently. “I will always know that I put my mind to something and achieved it. If I can, anyone can.”

The accident happened during her freshman year of high school, when Rowse was skiing with a childhood friend at Ragged Mountain in New Hampshire, two hours from her hometown in Townsend, Mass. Rowse lost control and hit a tree head first.

Rowse’s brain swelled and bled. The impact injured her cranial nerve and fractured her skull, shattering her nose and bones around her eye. Her brain scans revealed abnormalities that were cause for concern.

“They prepared us for the worst,” Rowse’s older sister Ann said. “We didn’t know if she was going to have to live in an assisted home for the rest of her life and be severely mentally handicapped.”

Rowse was put in a medically induced coma to help her chances of survival.

When she woke up a week and a half later, it was to a half-darkened world. The crash permanently damaged her left eye.

In the months of rehab that followed, Rowse’s memory loss was one of her greatest challenges. With impaired long- and short-term memory that still plagues her, Rowse was forced to rebuild those parts of her life that she could not remember.

Something she never forgot was the promise she made her sister while at the hospital.

“I told her in ICU that I would join the cross-country team if I could ever recover enough,” Rowse said. “She had wanted me to join for a long time because she was on the team. I probably would have never done it before then. I saw it as a way to give my situation positivity.”

In the beginning, Rowse said, it was an accomplishment just to reach the end of her bed without having to instantly lie  down. Her legs felt like Jell-O.

She began with little steps, then strides, and eventually, was well enough to jog. Gradually, Rowse strengthened her legs. When she started her first training sessions as a cross-country runner, her ability to sustain pressure on her legs grew with every mile she ran.

By her senior year, Rowse was an established cross-country runner. She had already begun thinking of a future in distance running. Then she met a man with one leg at a community service running event. The two ran together for five miles, an experience that heavily influenced Rowse.

“He was telling me all about the para-triathlons and marathons he had done, and I could not believe it,” she said. “He is what motivated me to run my first marathon.”

Her post-accident doubters, who Rowse said included friends and even some family members, pushed her to prove that not only could she conquer physical obstacles, but also excel academically, despite her mental challenges. It was for that reason, Rowse said, that she set her eyes on schools such as Texas when applying to universities.

By January 2013, Rowse was in her second year as a special education major. She wanted to try something new. She learned that her friend, UT senior Amy Gross, was an officer in the triathlon club. Gross urged her to consider joining.

“I thought of it as the perfect opportunity to break more barriers,” Rowse said.

Soon, Rowse was training daily with her new teammates. She began with a 70.3-mile triathlon last summer. She entered other events — each of which brought Rowse more confidence.

According to Joanna Williamson, head triathlon coach at Texas, most of Rowse’s teammates are unaware of her skiing accident. Rowse hardly speaks of the incident to them because she does not want it to define her.

In competitions, Rowse and her teammates score points according to where they finish; the higher her finish, the more points she contributes to the team score. The team attends district and regional meets year-round. The goal is to win as many district meets as possible, while also performing well as a group in the regional and, eventually, national meets — for a chance at the championship.

Some pro-level athletes compete in many of the meets, making it difficult for people like Rowse to stand out. Rowse said she often finishes toward the back of the pack.

That doesn’t bother Williamson, the coach.

“It’s great to have a fast team and to win competitions, but what you want to instill in your athletes is the love of the sport, regardless of how fast you are,” said Williamson, who has been at Texas since 2012. “You want to set goals for yourself, and you want to be consistent in your training.

“That is something that Grace exemplifies,” Williamson said. “She was my last finisher at regionals, and she was smiling the entire time. She was having so much fun. That is why you coach.”

For those teammates who do know her story, it provides a source of inspiration.

“She’s the reason I joined the triathlon team,” said junior Clare Hickey, who began training with the group last August. “Hearing what happened to her, I was moved by it. When she asked me to join the team, I knew if she could do it, so could I.”

Rowse still suffers from her injury. One of her eyes sags. She has memory problems and said she has to study for longer periods than other students.

Her experience and challenges have shaped her professional aims. When she graduates next year, she plans on becoming a special education teacher. Her goal, she said, is to make a life of serving people like herself.

“She’s used (her accident) in a positive way,” said triathlon teammate Gross. “She didn’t let it hold her back.”

Rowse aims to use her last year at Texas to break more limits. At the top of her list is her first ever “ultra distance” triathlon in May. Rowse will swim, cycle and run more than 140 miles.

“I can’t imagine where I would be without this sport,” Rowse said. “Since my accident, running has been such a big part of my life, and without it, I would never have tried something like a triathlon. It has been a blessing.”