Gracie Whelan says when she started high school track at Providence Day as a freshman, she didn’t have a passion for running – or the workouts associated with the sport.
Whelan said she got nervous anticipating her next day of practice. But in two years, Whelan has transformed that nervous freshman into an all-state and all-American sprinter.
She has three NCISAA state championships – the 2015, 400-meter run and two outdoor 4X400-meter relay titles (2014, 2015).
“It’s kind of funny that I didn’t really love track at first because I would psych myself out and get nervous even before a workout,” Whelan said. “Going into a big meet, I still get nervous, but I know how to deal with those feelings now. I’m confident in what I’ve accomplished and that I can continue to get faster with every race.”
Providence Day coach, Carol Lawrence, has enjoyed every step of Whelan’s progression.
“I still remember Gracie as a freshman, she was this skinny little thing with long legs, she was all legs,” Lawrence said. “She didn’t like the workouts at all her first year. But I saw something special in her.
“She listened to everything I told her and she did everything I told her to do on the track. I remember thinking early on in her freshman year, ‘We’ve really got something special to work with here.’”
Whelan also has benefited from the daily motivation by her teammate and close friend, All-American hurdler and sprinter, Anna Cockrell.
Cockrell is among the hurdlers and sprinters in the world. She won the 400-meter hurdles at both the Pan American Junior games in Edmonton, Canada, and the U.S. Junior Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon. The 12-time NCISAA state champion and five-time All-American is headed to the University of Southern California. She currently owns the No. 2 time in the world in the under-20 age group.
Whelan has gotten to train side-by-side with Cockrell on a daily basis.
“I really wasn’t intimidated by Anna because I was in her Spanish class when I was in eighth grade and got to know her and how nice and even silly she could be,” Whelan said. “I knew she was one of the best runners in the country from the start, so my goal was just to soak up everything I could from her. I wanted to be on her heels in every race. I’ve learned so much from running with Anna. I’m pretty lucky to have been able to run with one of the best runners in the world on my high school team.”
Lawrence has relishes watching what she says has become “a great partnership.”
“I remember when Gracie was a freshman, every time Anna was doing something, there was Gracie right behind her, like her little sister, her shadow,” Lawrence said. “Gracie tried to emulate Anna in everything she did. So, as a sophomore I made Gracie Anna’s training partner and I knew it was a tall order for her, but she did a great job hanging with Anna.”
Cockrell and Whelan hope to run win state championships this outdoor season as they look to lead the Providence Day girls’ track team to their fourth straight, NCISAA 3A title.
Whelan has gotten off to a great start, beginning this winter when she started to run impressive times in several events. But one particular race stood, Lawrence said.
“I remember this winter when Gracie lined up next to Anna at the N.C. Runners Holiday Invitational in the 300-meter dash and I looked at the other competitors and you could tell they were looking at Gracie like ‘Who is this girl and what is she doing in this heat?,” Lawrence said. “Then, right before the start Gracie turns to Anna and gives her a high five, and Anna wins the race with Gracie coming right behind her in second. Everybody watching the race was like ‘OK, she belongs. That was a big moment for Gracie.”
Whelan, 17, has had a lot of big moments as a junior, including a great performance at her first big national race, the USA Track and Field Age Group Nationals in Staten Island, N.Y., in March. She placed second in the 400-meter race and fourth overall in the 200-meter race.
Whalen’s recent results and times have caught the attention of college recruiters. Lawrence said Whelan has interest from Ivy League schools like Brown, Dartmouth and Yale. She has the athletic and academic talents (4.8-plus grade-point average) to go anywhere in the country.
Whelan also has the family pedigree. Her mother, Patricia, played tennis at Davidson College. Her father, Jack, ran track and played football at Amherst College. Her older sister, Sarah, now runs track at Amherst.
“I’ve come a long way in the last two years, from someone who was nervous to run at practice to someone who expects a new personal record in every race,” Whelan said. “I know I’m not going to PR in every race. But that is my goal. As a runner, you never want to dwell in the past. It’s all about winning the next race.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.