A Mistake Inspired Grace Stark’s CR Hurdles Win

It took only 7.78 seconds for Grace Stark to hurtle down the Crossplex straightaway. (KIRBY LEE/IMAGE OF SPORT)

A ROUGH EARLY-SEASON RACE helped Grace Stark put together a near-perfect Collegiate Record-equaling 7.78 in winning her first NCAA title a month later.

At February’s Tyson Invitational, the Florida junior had produced a PR-matching 7.86 in the prelims, looking every bit like one of the top hurdlers in the nation.

Then came the final, where she lined up in lane 4 alongside LSU’s Alia Armstrong. “I didn’t really get a good start at all and I just couldn’t come back from it. I knew I didn’t get a good start when it happened,” Stark recalls. “In trying to come back, I lost a little bit of form. I hit a few hurdles and not the best way — I mean, hitting hurdles isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But I hit ‘em in not the best way. It was just like a fight versus actually racing.”

Armstrong handily beat Stark to the finish with a collegiate leader, 7.81–8.00. Stark, the 20-year-old Michigander, licked her wounds and learned from her mistakes: “I learned I really need to lock in and tune in during the finals. And when I have a good prelim, don’t let only that showcase my abilities. And to just really start executing every single time. If I don’t get a good start, being OK with it.”

The two met again at the SEC, and in a bit of foreshadowing, Armstrong false-started while Stark, showcasing what has become a lightning start, won in 7.91.

In Birmingham, the two rivals set up a classic confrontation in the final after Armstrong blitzed her heat in 7.86 and Stark hers in a PR 7.83. Then, as the hurdlers awaited the gun for the final, Armstrong jumped. When that happens, the challenge to the remaining competitors is regaining their focus for the starter’s next attempt.

Stark says, “I just wanted to not let it get to me and remain focused on the race and focused on me,” adding, “False starts usually can take away from the whole field in terms of we lose another great runner and it kind of throws everything off. My goal was just to stay focused.”

That she did, with remarkable tunnel vision, as in her wake two more athletes went down. “I didn’t realize any girls fell until I looked up at the screen and saw DNF. I’m not thinking about outside factors, I’m thinking about just getting my feet down and running between the hurdles and making it to the finishline.

“I knew after I got off the last hurdle that I was going to be first at the finishline, but I didn’t want to let that get to me. I wanted just to keep going. I knew I was winning, but it was about getting the time.”

Now the Gators own the CRs for both the men’s (Grant Holloway) and women’s 60H. “I knew it was possible at the beginning of the season and I talked to my coach a lot about it,” says Stark.” That was our big goal, but actually seeing the time I was starstruck that I actually did it. When dreams become a reality, it’s a really crazy feeling.”

A key part of Stark’s championship drive came from her sprinting. She’s always been fast; an 11.47 on the flat as a high school junior speaks to that. But between alternating hamstring injuries and a pandemic, the last few years haven’t given her the opportunity to show her speed on the flat. This season, she and coach Mike Holloway designed an approach that saw her sprinting get real attention again.

She shredded her old HS best of 7.40 with a 7.23, then a 7.12 at Clemson. At the NCAA, she PRed again at 7.10 before taking 4th in the final in 7.13. “The speed was always there,” she says. “I needed to get it out in an open race so I could bring it to the hurdles. I needed to experience it on its own. And it does help a lot with my start. Working on my start there helped me continue that start in the hurdles.”

The 2022 Stark is a different beast from the ’21 version, where she showed up nursing an injury and finished 7th in her hurdles heat in 8.51. Outdoors, healthy and gaining strength, she PRed at 12.73 in the NCAA semis before finishing 4th in the final in 12.89. At the Trials, she got as far as a 12.79 for 8th in her semi.

“The way I’m approaching this season,” she says, “there’s been a more focused mindset into my ability and what I can do. Last year there were some rough patches with nagging injuries and stuff like that. The mindset this year is a big difference.”

Working with Holloway has obviously been huge. Stark says his list of accomplishments (not the least his being the ’21 Olympic coach) didn’t automatically create the necessary trust. “He has amazing stats to prove he is a great coach, but I have to trust him to be able to get me there and not just see that he’s done all that stuff.”

The two have built a solid rapport. “He always says that I’m laughing at him at practice, which is very true — he cracks these jokes all the time. You know, even though we have a goal, and even last week when we had the goal to win the championship and all that, he’s still cracking jokes at practice. He does get serious when he needs to get serious. It’s just fun that we get to see him laugh and crack jokes like that.”

Another Gainesville plus for Stark has been her friendship with the world’s No. 1-ranked men’s hurdler, Holloway. “He’s been like a big brother and such a mentor in terms of doing both the 60 and the 60 hurdles and the hurdles in general,” she explains. “He’s been there to give me a lot of advice with coach Holloway, with social media, with how to manage speed. And he’s also been someone who’s just easy to talk to and have a fun conversation with.

“I love being able to practice with him. He brings out an intensity at practice and it’s a very good practice environment when he’s there.”

This season, Stark has been talking with coach Holloway about where she can take all this speed of hers. “There are the obvious goals. Hopefully we’ll get a 100 in, but it’s a little bit harder to run the 100 outdoor because there’s the 4×1 and I think we have a great 4×1 team. So we’re just focused on those two events and we’ll try to get a good time in the 100 in. It’s been so long since I’ve run an open 100 and it’ll just be fun to get that out there, just to see what I can do.”

She adds that her plans go beyond the NCAA finals. “That’s been the goal since the beginning of the season, try and get the records, try to win the [NCAA] championships and try to make the Worlds team. Those are all goals and we’re just taking them step-by-step.”

The key to get there — in technical terms — is for Stark to continue the process of controlling her sprint speed in the barrier race. “That’s the biggest thing. At the SEC finals, I hit the last two hurdles and it was kind of the same race [as NCAAs]. I had the same speed and it was just like, I didn’t know how to manage it.”

Stark is well aware of how lucky she is to be on her current path. Adopted as an infant, pulled out of gymnastics at age 10 (her mom was worried she’d hurt herself with all that speed), thrown onto the track — at first, against her will — all those things led Stark to Gainesville.

She says if any of those things hadn’t happened, “My life could have been completely different. I could have never gotten into track. I could have never grown up in the area. We could have never been having this conversation. I’m just super grateful this was God’s plan for me.”

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