COLUMBUS — The stinging finality of the moment did what few other competitors have been able to do the past four years.
It caught up with Gracie Huffman.
Seconds after a medal had been placed around her neck following the final race of her record-setting career, the Troy High School senior sat down in a heap behind the medical tent on the infield of Jesse Owens Memorial Stadium during the state track and field meet.
A reporter asked her a question.
“That’s a good question,” she said. She sighed heavily. She tried to continued. Then stopped.
She looked down at the ground. She tried to answer the question again, but no words came.
She slipped her feet out of her neon yellow and pink Brooks track spikes — the same ones that have carried her to victory upon victory and school record after school record — and stared down at her feet as she wiggled her toes inside her black Nike socks.
Huffman tried to answer the question one final time, then finally gave up for the moment. She buried her face in her hands and rubbed her eyes. Her broad shoulders moved slowly up and down in a rhythmic, sobbing cadence.
Gracie Huffman — perhaps the most intense competitor, male or female, to walk the halls of Troy High School this century — was crying. Tears were steadily streamig down her cheeks.
“I’m sorry,” she finally choked out. “I knew this was going to happen. That’s why I’ve been wearing sunglasses all day. It’s hard to believe it’s over. It’s really hard to believe it’s over. It’s like that famous quote, ‘Don’t cry because it’s over; smile because it happened.’ Who said that? Dr. Seuss? The man was a (darn) genius. Oops … sorry about the language.”
For four years, Huffman — she of the five school records, five state medals, four state appearances, three Greater Western Ohio Conference Athlete of the Year Awards and countless other awards and accolades — has won track and field meets as much through intimidation as blazing speed.
Huffman treated her entire track and field career like a street fight. She stared down her opponents while she stood in her lane before races. She balled her hands into fists and punched herself in the legs to loosen up. She spat, snared and snorted. She was the Mike Tyson of the high school track. So many times, Huffman’s mental edge allowed her win races before the starter’s pistol was even fired.
All of that, however, was merely exterior bluster — a metaphorical suit of armor worn to protect what was truly on the inside.
“I’m a softie,” Huffman said. “I’m probably the biggest softie in the world. I’m going to miss all of this. I’m going to miss it so much. I’ve made so many friends and so many memories and hopefully left my mark on this school. My teammates have been like my family. And I’m going to miss them and all of this.”
Huffman is, in every sense of the word, passionate. That same passion that made her a superstar on the track was what she poured into her life as a student at Troy High School. She was the student body president and, at sporting events in which she was not participating, practically a force of nature, always in the front row encouraging her classmates and yelling sometimes incendiary things at opposing players and coaches.
For four years, Huffman did more than just attend Troy High School — she let it become a part of her. And now that she’s completed her final act as a Trojan, saying goodbye won’t be easy.
“I’m a sissy — I don’t deal well with change,” she said. “We have this refrigerator at our house that is 22 years old that my dad keeps trying to get rid of. It’s horrible. The light doesn’t work and it keeps leaking. But I don’t want my dad to get rid of it. We’ve had it for 22 years and I’m attached to it. It’s a refrigerator.
“That’s the way I am about my team and about Troy High School. I’ll get to run track again, but it won’t be with this group of girls. This is my family. I’m sure it will be great, but it won’t be the same. It’s the same thing with Troy High School. Don’t get me wrong; I was ready to graduate. I was fed up with school and work and everything else, but even after graduation, I was thankful I still had a few weeks left on the track.
“I love this city and I love this school. That’s my place.”
With that kind of passion, however, it’s hard to believe there won’t always be a place somewhere for Gracie Huffman.
Contact David Fong at firstname.lastname@example.org; follow him on Twitter @thefong