How could a creature so miniscule cause such pain, frustration, and consternation?
How could it do all within its power to derail a promising cross country and track career.
It was a tick, after all. One measly tick. Just a speck. A centimeter or two.
Work or play outside, especially in the warm months, and you’re bound to find one attached to your body now and then. No big deal. Pick it off. Discard it. End of story.
In Gracie White’s case, though, it wasn’t the end. It was just the beginning, chapter one in a narrative that began her freshman fall at Collegiate. Since then, the 2020 graduate’s story has taken myriad twists and turns. It’s featured subplot after subplot. Now, four years later, it’s still very much a work in progress.
Call it Gracie’s Odyssey. No, better yet, Gracie’s Inspiring Odyssey.
“Everyone has a story,” she said. “Everyone has a battle. I just have to power through, like other people do.”
Power through, she has, from the day she got in her mom’s car after the third pre-season cross country workout in August 2016, her back and neck hurting and the right side of her face paralyzed so that she couldn’t smile correctly or blink her eye.
So began a seemingly endless series of doctors’ appointments. Stress, maybe? An orthopedic injury, perhaps? Then, after much blood work and evaluation came the verdict: Lyme disease, a bacterial infection caused by the bite of an infected tick.
“In my mind, I thought I’d be over it in just a few weeks,” she said one afternoon recently as she reflected upon the past four years. “I didn’t know what I was in for. There’re ways you can treat it. You feel better on certain days, but you can’t get rid of it completely.”
Life’s events, especially its cheap shots and bad breaks, are not always of our making or in our control.
What is in our control is the manner with which we embrace the struggle, stare down adversity, and turn what some might consider negatives into life-defining positives.
Throughout her running career, Gracie trained to achieve excellence, but excellence doesn’t come just from fast times or first-place finishes. It comes, instead, from challenging physical limits and refusing to capitulate to the demons in your head when the finish line seems infinitely far away.
“Gracie learned over the years that the clock is not always the measure of success,” said Matthew Richardson, her cross country and distance track coach throughout her years at Collegiate. “The greater measure is the relationships you develop, the way you overcome obstacles, and the grace and attitude with which you do it. She learned that life doesn’t always hand you the path you think you’re going to take, but she learned to navigate the path she found herself on and did it in ways that inspired others.”
Gracie was an 18-season runner: cross country in the fall from grade 7 through 12, then track, mainly middle distance, each winter and spring.
From the outset, she loved the training regimen, the high expectations, the competition, and the associations with her teammates.
She admired the older athletes, learned from them, and aspired to serve one day as a role model and mentor who influenced younger kids just as she had been influenced by their work ethic and dedication as much as by their words.
Gracie comes from a family which values fitness. Her mom Lorrie is a championship tennis player and long-time aerobics instructor. Her dad John was a standout high school football player and has biked three times across the United States. Her older sisters Emma and Ellie played tennis for Collegiate. Her twin brother Johnny was also an 18-season runner for the Cougars and now competes for Virginia Commonwealth University.
Gracie’s career began well. She became a three-season varsity athlete as an eighth grader, provided depth in cross country, and recorded a personal best of 2:33 in the 800 on the track. Her future was bright. She set a goal of breaking the school record (2:23.53) established in 2016 by Virginia Harris, one of those older athletes whom she sought to emulate.
Then came a late-summer trip to camp not long before cross country pre-season began. During that week, she spent most of her time outdoors. Though she’s not 100 percent certain, that’s where she thinks she ran afoul of the tick, which she never actually saw and whose bite left no discernable mark. The bummer was that she was in the best condition of her life. She’d followed the off-season training plan, completed early-morning workouts, eaten well, and gotten sufficient rest.
The symptoms arrived with a vengeance: facial palsy which she experienced for a couple of months, muscle aches (almost constant), nerve pain, a crawling sensation on her skin, burning on the bottom of her feet, fogginess in her thinking (especially when she was sleep-deprived or stressed), and fatigue.
“Lyme disease,” Gracie said, “is described as an invisible illness. I could look completely healthy, happy, and strong. Most of the symptoms aren’t noticeable to others. People don’t understand that Lyme disease can last longer than just a few weeks. In my case, the bacteria spread to my nervous system, so it progressed to a chronic stage. Standard treatment (antibiotics) didn’t work. My doctor said this was the worst case he’d ever seen in someone as young as me.”
As her classmates were gearing up for the adventure of high school and her teammates for the new season full of hope, Gracie found herself trying to hold her constant discomfort at bay.
“The first two years were defined by profound disappointment, frustration, and physical pain,” she said without a trace of self-pity in her voice or demeanor. “My craving for fitness and the love I had for spending every afternoon with my teammates and coaches overpowered the pain and stress. That’s what kept me going.”
Quitting would have been easy, but Gracie doesn’t do “quit” nor does she do “easy.”
“Choosing not to participate would’ve been my ultimate downfall,” she said. “Sitting at home and being more conscious of my physical pain and knowing I was missing out on what I love would have defeated me.”
Throughout those two years and, indeed, the duration of her career, Gracie received nothing but support from family, teammates, and coaches.
“If you asked any teammate to tell you about Gracie,” Richardson said, “they’d say, ‘Tough competitor. Positive person. Puts others before herself. Builds you up. Works hard. Makes you laugh.’ Her work ethic never faltered, even in times when it wasn’t really clear what she was working for other than to give her best. Her teammates saw that and admired her for it.”
As her performances in workouts and meets fluctuated depending on her health on a particular day, Gracie came to understand that she might never hit her lofty, pre-Lyme disease expectations. She’d lost her health, she felt, but she was determined that she would never lose running or the joy of team. She was further determined that if her health didn’t allow her to hold forth from the front of the pack, it would not prevent her from leading that pack in a spiritual, motivational way.
Gracie’s final ledger shows personal bests of 2:29.56 in the 800, 3:26.90 in the 1000, and 5:55.16 in the 1600. She was a regular on both the 4x400 and 4x800 relay teams. Her fastest 5K cross country race was 21:10 at Pole Green Park, not the flat, fast version of the course used in invitationals but the hilly, demanding state meet route.
“I became increasingly grateful for simply having the ability to run and be with my team every afternoon,” she said. “I thought less about personal achievements and devoted my energy towards setting a strong example. Matthew has seen me at my worst but also in times of strength and triumph. He was always willing to listen on my harder days and encourage me. He reminded me before every race to smile and have fun and was there for me from start to finish through the ups and downs of the sport and in life.”
As a show of respect, Gracie’s track and field teammates elected her to serve as captain in the spring of her junior year and winter and spring of her senior year.
“Gracie embodied a team-first attitude no matter what kind of day she was having or how she was feeling,” said Elyse Cram, a senior and long-time teammate. “She was always able to lead with positivity and hard work and would go the extra mile with you. Everybody knew that every practice, Gracie was going to give it her all. Gracie never complained. When you go on a run with Gracie, you’ll never have a bad run. No matter what kind of day you’ve had, Gracie will always uplift you.”
Though her career has ended, Gracie continues to train religiously as she takes a gap year before college. She has a regular babysitting gig and serves as a volunteer assistant cross country and track coach at her alma mater. Her health is good. She takes no medication, only supplements, and sticks to a vegan diet. She’s learned to focus on the moment, savor each good day, and move past the challenging ones because of the promise of tomorrow.
“You know what you’re going to get with Gracie,” Richardson said. “She gives her best and makes the best of each situation. Those are the people you want to surround yourself with in life. That’s who Gracie is. That’s the makeup of her character. That’s why she’s helping out with the team because I knew she’d inspire a generation of girls that came after her and continue to build that level of excellence in our program.”
Gracie’s Inspiring Odyssey continues. Frustration, disappointment, and self-doubt have given way to clarity, enlightenment, and a sense of purpose.
“You have to stick to what you love doing,” she said. “Let that be your priority. My number one priority is my love of fitness and my team. That actually encourages healing and allows me to feel better. When life gets difficult, you have to push yourself to be the finest version of an athlete, teammate, and person you can be. Carry on with determination and resilience. Make it your goal to feel satisfied and empowered at the end of the day. Be proud of yourself and how much you can conquer. What you’re capable of will amaze you.”