400m hurdles winner Norman Grimes at the IAAF World Youth Championships, Cali 2015 (Getty Images) © Copyright
Feature Cali, Colombia

World youth title is just the beginning for Grimes

Moments after destroying the field to win the 400m hurdles title at the IAAF World Youth Championships, Cali 2015 in Colombia last week, Norman Grimes walked up the steps to the mixed zone and, when asked about his preparations for such a performance, offered one of the most curious answers of the week.

“I still think I’m out of shape,” he said, keeping a perfectly straight face, having just run the second-fastest youth time in history, 49.11, to come home a massive 1.22 seconds clear of the silver medallist.

It’s easy to laugh at the suggestion – who wouldn’t – but then it soon became clear that the 17-year-old US athlete isn’t joking.

In April, Grimes underwent appendicitis surgery, which left him inactive for a number of weeks and forced him to play a game of catch-me-if-you-can with his fitness all the way to Cali, a chase he eventually won by pushing the envelope at the practice track on a daily basis.

“Most of my training was constant because coming off surgery, I was out of shape,” he said. “I think I could be in better shape than this, definitely.”

For his rivals, who were left trailing far behind him in Cali, that must be a scary proposition.

What’s perhaps more impressive is that the 400m hurdles wasn’t his singular focus in Cali; Grimes also competed in the 110m hurdles, bowing out in the semi-finals, and on the final day of competition – in his sixth race in five days – he helped the US 4x400m mixed relay team to gold.

“I’m exhausted,” he said afterwards. “It wasn’t easy but I didn’t want to let those guys down. I was just praying that my legs were going to hold it together. I’m ready to go home now and nap for a whole day.”

It’s safe to say he’s earned it.

Grimes – from Amarillo, Texas – was first shown the way to track and field at the age of seven by his supremely athletic family. His four sisters – Allison, Katie, Whitney and Mackenzie – are also athletes.

Far from growing up amid a bitter sibling rivalry, though, Grimes says his sisters’ early accomplishments served as his first inspiration. “I used to run around saying I wanted to be a track star like my oldest sister, Allison,” he said. “We’re all really close. We help each other out and lift each other up.”

Grimes’ mother, Deedy, is also a former NCAA athlete while his father, Norman, played American football in college. Together, they coach Grimes and on Saturday night, both were in the stadium in Cali to witness what was a memorable, if not entirely unexpected, performance by their son.

After his semi-final last Thursday, Grimes spoke assuredly about his goal for the final, saying he hoped to go sub-49, which raised quite a few eyebrows, although he had clocked 50.59 over the senior-height hurdles leading into the championships.

His confidence, though, proved well-founded.

In the final, Grimes looked a class apart from the moment the gun fired. Taking just 13 strides between all but the last two hurdles, his long, fluid stride simply ate up the ground and made his rivals looks relatively pedestrian.

“Whenever you reach your goals, it feels awesome,” he said. “I switched to 14 strides on the last hurdle and I’ve never got that far before, so the hard work has paid off.”

Much like his performances, Grimes’ insatiable work ethic belies his youth.

With two gold medals in the bag, his attention has already turned to the next task – winning gold at the Pan American Junior Championships in Edmonton, Canada, beginning July 31.

After that, he’ll take a couple of weeks off before getting back training, hoping to rebuild the foundation of strength that he lost in recent months. “Ever since my surgery in April, I haven’t done any weights or core because of the effect of cutting through all that muscle,” he said, “so that’s a goal going into the off-season – to get stronger in my lower body and become more explosive.”

With Grimes about to enter his final year of high school, there’s also a big decision to be made, and he will spend much of the coming month visiting colleges, who will be lining up thick and fast to have him sign on the dotted line. Grimes, however, is in no mood to divulge his preferences just yet.

“I have a couple of ideas but it’s confidential,” he said. “I’ll decide at the last minute. It has to be the right college; it has to be perfect.”

Wherever he goes, Grimes plans to study geology, a choice he hopes will lead him into the oil and gas business, just like his father.

On the track, Grimes plans to continue juggling both hurdles events for as long as possible. “I’m going to work on my 110s more,” he said. “They help with hurdle form and quickness between the barriers. It’s good to have that mix of quick turnover of endurance.”

He’s already faster – much faster – than his 400m hurdles peers at youth level, and now Grimes wants to continue his steep ascent to the top of the junior, and eventually senior, ranks.

“I want to keep dropping my times and get as strong as possible,” he said. “I want to chase the Olympic dream.”

But Grimes – once again showing an ability rarely seen in a person so young – is wise enough to know that the only certainty about tomorrow is that nothing is certain.

“This sport is full of surprises,” he said. “You never know what the future holds, and that’s what I love about it.”

Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF