It was surreal for Grace Norman to cross the paratriathlon finish line at the Paralympic Games in Rio 2016. She was, as she described, a “crying pile at the end” due to a culmination of exhaustion and excitement. “The moment I fit in first place was pretty amazing,” Norman told POPSUGAR. “I knew there was no one who really came back from the athlete from second place.” This marked the sport’s debut at the Paralympics, so crossing the finish line not only achieved a victory, but made her the first American athlete and first female athlete from any country to win a paratriathlon gold medal.

Norman, who at birth was diagnosed with a congenital condition that required amputation of her left leg below the knee and right big toe, also won bronze in Rio’s T44 400-meter race and field event (each Paralympic sport is divided into different disability classifications). This time in Tokyo, she focuses exclusively on defending her gold medal in triathlon – she has nevertheless built more for paratriathlon, she explained.

When Norman became interested in the Paralympics, she said she realized that not all events at a distance and track were available for her disability classification. Since she had a background in the race, paratriathlon appealed to her instead, especially because of the 5K at the end. “When I started it, I fell in love with it and quickly claimed it as my own sport,” she recalled.

Triathlon swimming would not prove difficult for Norman when she swam in high school, but the bike part was her biggest challenge. Being able to cycle at the high level, she said, is still one of her most difficult obstacles, and when we spoke in April, she noticed that her training was very cycling-focused. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, she did not have much training structure, but now it is more race-specific as she calls in the pace. She takes Mondays off each week followed by endurance-heavy Tuesdays, sprint work on Wednesdays, running sessions on Thursdays, “light” Fridays and bike-centered weekends. In other words: it is a lot; Worth 18 to 20 hours of exercise each week.

At the start of the pandemic, Norman was locked in St. Louis. George, UT, where she had traveled for a race. One of her teammates’ families took her in, and over the next few months, she completed her nursing degree from Cedarville University via Zoom (she recently passed her postponed exam a year later). It was a trying time, she said, but the pandemic showed her the value of a job in the medical field.

“It made me excited that I had chosen a major that could be easily used,” Norman said. She added that although she has no plans to find a nursing home until after the Games, she has her RN license. “I think when the vaccines come out, I feel much more confident going out into the field in a few months after the game. I’m definitely very excited to use my nursing career for the good of others.” She is specifically interested in pursuing ER or psychiatric nursing.

Having the ability to prioritize and manage your time beyond paying attention to detail are strengths that both nurses and triathletes need, Norman said. Her experience as a student-athlete on the Cedarville track and field and cross country teams as well as on a regular basis in a club triathlon team helped her gather these time management skills and utilize them to good use.

Norman aims to compete in the Tokyo Paratriathlon this summer in the PTS5 classification – The Rio Paratriathlon, in which she participated, was the PT4 race, which has since been redesigned for PTS5. A selection event is set for the end of June, and in July, the full U.S. Paralympic team will be announced. In anticipation of her qualification, she hopes to perform to the best of her ability and, of course, defend the shining gold medal.

To learn more about all the Olympic and Paralympic hopes, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Olympics in Tokyo and the Paralympics this summer on NBC.

Image source: Regards Rich Cruse