SOUTH BEND – Regardless of the uniform he’s wearing or the competitor alongside, Tommy Grant can boil college track down to its lowest common denominator.
Whether it’s Bethel (NAIA) — where the 2013 Penn High grad spent his first three years — or Notre Dame, his current address, the sprinter keeps finding ways to make an impact.
“The interesting thing about track is that it’s just a time,” Grant said.
Whether it’s a meet against schools with barely a couple thousand students, or a head-to-head battle with a guy from the University of Michigan, Grant has learned to take the competition in stride.
Timing has always been a big part of Grant’s life. Dreams of following up his years at Penn with a career in college soccer changed when he started running pretty fast. Junior year, he was part of the 4x100 state championship relay team.
He was a contender for a state title in the 100 meters as a senior, but a leg injury early in the tournament series scuttled that plan.
By then, though, he already had his heart set on matriculating to nearby Bethel College to continue running and, in his spare time, earn a degree in mechanical engineering. Bethel and Notre Dame have a partnership in which students spend the first three years at Bethel and the last two at Notre Dame.
“We knew that was the deal going in,” Bethel track coach Tony Natali said. “We would have loved to have had him this year (as a senior). He made a great impact when he was here.”
That impact can be measured in individual laurels. Grant won All-America honors in the sprints four different times.
“Bethel’s a great place to develop people,” Grant said. “I was able to build strong relationships there.
“It made me confident in who I am and what I want to do. I was able to grow a lot. It makes me feel confident in the situation I’m in now.”
The transition — academically, more than athletically — was a tough one on the Granger resident. After posting a 3.8 GPA in three years at Bethel, it dipped to 2.9 last semester.
“We had the dean of the department talk to us before we came here,” Grant said. “He told us to expect our GPA to drop a point that first semester. The first half of the semester was difficult, just getting used to the classes and the culture here. After a while, I settled in. I feel good now.”
Athletically, the 6-foot-2, 185-pound (cleverly disguised as muscle) Grant has been a godsend to the Irish program. Desperate for sprinters, head coach Alan Turner was thrilled to have Grant fall into his lap.
“We need short sprinters,” Turner said. “Last year, we didn’t even enter in the 60 meters (indoors) or the 100 outdoors.
“We can’t get (those sprinters admitted academically) in (to Notre Dame).”
Grant spent that troublesome first semester proving his potential to the coaches — and himself.
“I wanted to prove to myself that this was something I could do,” Grant said. “I wasn’t really worried about anything else.”
For Turner, it was a tryout period. After Grant passed with flying colors, he was awarded a scholarship.
Grant came into the fall lacking the base that most Division I sprinters would have.
Instead, he focused on the big picture of life.
Last summer, putting his mechanical engineering background (with a lean toward bio-engineering) to work, he had an internship with a firm in Minneapolis that designed instruments and equipment for heart surgery.
Using out-of-the box thinking, he was part of a team that worked on making existing instruments better, or coming up with designs for new instruments.
Plans are for him to be back in Minneapolis again this summer.
Natali had no qualms about Grant succeeding against the top collegiate sprinters in the country.
“Tommy’s a special, special kid,” Natali said. “He’s a tireless worker with an amazing attitude. There’s not a selfish bone in his body.”
The work ethic has played a role in making the transition effective. Last weekend, in a meet with heavyweights such as Louisville, North Carolina, Virginia and Michigan relatively early in the indoor season, he ran a personal best of 21.85 in the 200 (placing second), while also going 6.87 (in a preliminary heat) in the 60 (6.89 good for fourth in the final).
Not bad for a guy who is training in a bonafide indoor facility for the first time.
It was the facility circumstances at Bethel that may have played a role in Grant picking up some bad habits on his start that had to be worked out over the past few months.
“Tommy’s drive phase was not as long as a typical sprinter,” Irish sprinters coach Pristina Jones said.
In layman’s terms, the drive phase is the first 30 meters of the race when the key is to explode out of the blocks. Grant’s problem was that for three years the training took place in a restricted area with a wall at the finish.
“You couldn’t be going too hard (at Bethel) or you were going to run into the high jump mat that kept you from running right into the wall,” Grant said. “Having an indoor facility for the first time, I’m able to stretch my legs out.”
“Tommy is one the edge of a breakthrough in the 60,” said Jones. “More than he thinks, he can do some remarkable things. We just have to get him to believe.”
“What I look for in a sprinter is someone who’s powerful and aggressive,” Turner said. “Even though, by nature, Tommy’s a soft-spoken person, he’s aggressive on the track. What he has shown so far shows a lot of promise.”
Grant’s not at the level of a qualifier for the NCAA Championships just yet, but the future — even if it’s just five or so months (this is his only year of Division I eligibility) — is bright.
“Tommy has the ability to transfer what he learns in practice to when the bright lights come on,” said Natali. “He can take the techniques he learns and convert them into his competition.”
All that without being overwhelmed with the magnitude of the stage.
“Going from the NAIA to (NCAA) Division I is like (an NCAA) Division III football player going against Alabama or Clemson,” Turner said. “Normally, the NAIA champ would probably place seventh or eighth in the (Atlantic Coast Conference).”
The scope of the competition hasn’t been intimidating.
“I’m just here to see what I can accomplish,” Grant said. “I’m just running, that’s all.
“I’m looking for that race when all the pieces come together. The start; the drive phase; the stride — everything clicks. They’re pretty rare. I’ve only had about a half-dozen of those.”
He better hurry. Time’s running out.
No matter the competition level.