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RUNNING WITH GRACE: UALBANY ATHLETE COMPETES IN RIO

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In most cases, a tenth of a second goes by unnoticed. That was not true for University at Albany athlete Grace Claxton, who last May clinched her spot in the Rio Olympics after she clocked in just 100 milliseconds under qualifying time.

Just three months before the Rio Games, Claxton, a senior studying Public Heath at UAlbany, set a personal record running the 400-meter hurdles in 55.90 seconds at the NCAA East Preliminary. As she crossed the finish line and saw her time, she was exhilarated, as her performance had just secured her place in the world’s most elite sporting event.

“At that moment I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I was shocked, speechless, I couldn’t even eat.”

Born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico, as a child Claxton was always the fastest of all her peers. Urged by her teachers to play sports such as basketball and softball, it wasn’t until the age of 17 that she began running track at Club Santurce in Parque Central, San Juan.

Source: Grace Claxton
Source: Grace Claxton

In 2014, Claxton was recruited as a UAlbany athlete and began to train with track and field Coach Roberto Vives. Claxton, unlike many other Olympians, has only been running track for six years, dedicating the past 16 months to practicing for the 400-meter hurdles.

Although new to the event, Claxton excelled as a hurdler, ranking fifth in the semifinal round in Rio. Finishing just two seconds behind Dalilah Muhammad, who went on to win gold in the event, Claxton was proud of her achievement as a relative beginner.

“For me it’s a great feeling,” she said. “Even though I didn’t run two seconds faster, I PR’d [obtained a personal record], and if I PR’d that means I did my best.”

After qualifying for the Olympics by running the 400-meter hurdles in less than 56 seconds, Claxton had only three months to prepare. One month before Rio, Claxton pulled her hamstring and couldn’t practice for days; she said the fear of not competing was “terrifying.”

Upon arriving in Rio, still sore from her injury, Claxton began carefully practicing alongside her team. As her injury healed in the first week, Claxton and her coach gradually increased the intensity of her workouts leading up to the first round.

“Everything was looking good,” she said.

Claxton breezed through the first heat and moved on to the semifinals where she placed fifth.

With a unique recognition from the International Olympic Committee the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, although part of the United States, is allowed to compete in the Olympics as a sovereign entity.

As a runner for her native Puerto Rico, the state’s participation in the games separate from the U.S. allowed Claxton a greater chance at reaching the Olympics. While Claxton’s time may have satisfied Olympic qualifying standards, if she had been running for the U.S. team, her score might not have been enough to send her to Rio.

Although a member of the Puerto Rican national track and field team, Claxton trained alongside of her UAlbany coach in preparation for the games. After recruiting Claxton in 2014, Vives has been integral to her success, and she claimed that they would take their relationship a year at a time, as she will soon be graduating.

Beyond her coach, Claxton explained that the UAlbany community has contributed to her success as an athlete and student. She stated that juggling the responsibilities of both can be demanding, but her peers and teammates at UAlbany make this burden easier.

“You can’t give one or the other more attention,” she said. “You have to learn how to keep a balance.”

Thoroughly content with her performance at her first Olympics, Claxton is eager to prepare for future races. She hopes to go to the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, but until then has several major races as both a UAlbany athlete and Puerto Rican National athlete to hold her over.

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Stefan-Lembo Stolba is the former editor-in-chief of the Albany Student Press. Lembo-Stolba has interned with WAMC Northeast Public Radio and the Albany Times Union. A transfer student from Schenectady County Community College, he earned a BA in journalism in May 2015. He continued his education at Columbia University.

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