Erin Gray - Elite Athlete Spotlight
The road to success is never easy, especially for an athlete. For 26-year-old race walker Erin Gray, it took a positive attitude, support from her family, and a lot of perseverance in the face of adversity.
Gray began her distance running career at the age of nine in her home state of Oregon. She hoped to follow in the footsteps of father, Bob Gray, who competed at the 1972 Olympic Trials in the race walk and marathon events, and entrusted him with the role of coach. With her father’s wisdom guiding her, she began competing in several USATF Junior Olympic meets.
Just as her running career began to blossom though, life threw Gray a curveball.
“When I was 12-years-old, I had to have open heart surgery,” said Gray.
Gray was born with a misplaced pulmonary vein that dumped blood into the wrong atrium, causing it to swell. Although not an immediate emergency situation, doctors predicted the worst if they did not correct the problem.
“The doctor surmised I would die by the age of 30 of heart failure if it wasn’t fixed. Even though it wasn’t an emergency situation at the time, I felt like it was very scary,” said Gray. “It taught me to appreciate my body, what it can do, and how everything that is normal in my life can be taken away.”
Fortunately, Gray experienced no complications from her surgery and went on to compete in high school, winning the Oregon State Cross Country title her sophomore year. After graduating from South Eugene High School in 2005, she continued her running career for the cross country and track teams at the University of Arkansas, under the direction of head coach Lance Harter.
After wearing the Razorback uniform for three years in events such as the 3,000, steeplechase, 10,0000m and 3,000m run, Gray received another devastating blow heading into her senior year.
“I remember the day I found out I broke my femur,” said Gray. “It was very emotional because in the course of four hours, I went from thinking it was a sore hip flexor to a broken femur.”
Gray had a severe stress fracture in her femur that required surgery. Gray began to think her career was over, but her father told her to reconsider.
“I told my dad ‘I’m going to call Lance. It’s just too devastating’ and he advised me to think of all of the benefits I’d had from being on the team and the relationships I’d made,” said Gray. “So, I decided to stick with it.”
After finishing her cross country and track seasons and graduating from the University of Arkansas in 2009, her father nudged her to try another less abrasive event in the track and field world - race walking.
“As a distance runner, you look at race walking as...not as glamorous as cross country,” said Gray. “Having done both, race walking is by far the hardest event I’ve ever done, and I’ve done everything from the 800 to the steeplechase to the 10k.”
In race walking, competitors must ensure one foot touches the ground at all times, and may only commit two infractions in the 20 km course before being disqualified. After being disqualified in nearly 50 percent of her meets in the first two years of competing, Gray finally discovered that increasing her turnover rate helped to smooth her form and lower her times and number of disqualifications.
Thanks to the improvements in form, Gray earned a spot in the 2012 Olympic Trials for the 20 km race walk and finished third with a “B-standard” time of 1:35:40.05, just two minutes and ten seconds shy of the “A-standard”. Unfortunately for Gray, and Team USA, no female race walkers reached the “A-standard” time, so only one competitor attended the 2012 Olympic Games.
Luckily for Gray, her time from the 2012 Olympic Trials was good enough to secure the needed IAAF “A-standard” for the World Championships by twenty seconds. With Gray joined by teammates Maria Michta and Miranda Melville, Team USA will send a full contingent to compete in the women’s 20 km race walk event at the World Championships in Moscow.
“It’s a really exciting thing,” said Gray. “Hopefully other girls can look up to us and see how we’ve progressed over the years, and I hope more excitement can come to race walking.”
And, as if being an elite athlete is not time consuming enough, Gray is continuing her education at the College of Osteopathic Medicine of the Pacific Northwest in California in order to become a general pediatrician.
“It’s a combination between a lot of time management and a little bit of attitude,” said Gray when asked how she manages to compete and attend medical school. “Of course, a healthy dose of coffee helps too.”
However, in order to reach her dreams of becoming a pediatrician, Gray has accepted the need to end her athletic career within the next few years.
“Hopefully, five years from now, I’ll be a doctor in a residency program in Oregon. My goal is to make it to the 2016 Olympics,” said Gray with optimism in her voice. “Even if I make it or not, I think I’ll start my retirement from then on.”
In the meantime, Gray is enjoying her race walking career and the upcoming chance to represent Team USA in Moscow.
“We’re paving the way and deserve the respect of the rest of the track and field community,” she said. “To any distance runner struggling with an injury or not making international teams, keep an open mind about race walking. I had a closed mind but it has opened numerous doors for me. To young girls, besides consistent training, the most important quality you can have is perseverance. Those who persevere through adversity can find success.”
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