WINONA LAKE – Grace College had never entered an outdoor track season quite like it was about to in March. The collegiate sports shutdown really put a halt to some serious momentum for both programs, which was on track for a truly historic season.
Grace was forging through its best start to a season in program history when the NAIA shut down operations in mid-March. The Lancers had just pieced together an all-time showing at the NAIA Nationals, placing in four events, earning 10 All-American awards and qualifying 16 for the NAIA Nationals, all three feats the most Grace had ever seen.
The indoor showings were ready to translate to outdoor events like javelin, where one of the best in the country – Tommy Hickerson – was waiting for his turn. The two-time NCCAA National Champion was looking to go out on top one more time. On the mend from a groin injury, Hickerson was nearly ready to go full time when the announcement was made the season was off. The senior at Grace won’t have the chance to see if the work in the offseason will pay off.
“It has definitely been more difficult to be motivated to continue to train or find a reason to, especially since this year was my senior year,” said Hickerson, who is a 2016 Warsaw Community High School graduate. “It’s tough because you did not expect it and out of your control, but it’s a humbling moment to take a step back and look at your life and reprioritize your priorities. God opens and closes doors. This is a time to look for those new doors that are open.”
Hickerson was initially recruited by Grace as a long jumper and placed in both the long jump and triple jump at the 2018 Crossroads League Indoor Championships. His focused transitioned into the javelin that produced a 2019 Crossroads League title and eventually into a two-time defending champion in the NCCAA. He qualified for the NAIA Outdoor Championships last year.
“To have the best indoor performance made it so exciting to be a part of hopefully the same results in outdoors,” said Hickerson, who did not participate at Indoor Nationals. “With all my training numbers at an all-time high, seeing the season go was tough because I was very excited and ready to go. I was definitely looking forward to seeing everyone’s hard work pay off.”
Another athlete from the area, Heather Plastow, is cited by Grace College track head coach Jeff Raymond as one of the most improved athletes in his program, and in his opinion, the entire Crossroads League. The lightly recruited sophomore from Lakeland Christian Academy has set a pair of indoor track records in the mile (5:08.82) and 3,000 meter (10:32.90) runs. Plastow ran the mile at the NAIAs, placing 15th and earning the sixth-highest individual women’s finish in the program’s NAIA indoor history.
“I’m going to be honest, I still feel very disappointed to be missing the opportunity to compete,” Plastow said. “Even more so, I’m missing the opportunity to be present with teammates, laughing on bus rides, and all the other fun privileges being on the track team brings. Our team culture has remained such a joy to be a part of, and I will not take that for granted when we resume team training.”
Plastow pointed out distance running is likely the simplest of any track athlete. With the exception of a sprinter, and even then, the surfaces and lanes aren’t readily available everywhere, distance runners might be the few who won’t lose much in the way of facility loss during the shutdown. It’s just up to each run to carry the discipline and the diet to stay in shape.
“The shutdown took away a few resources for sure,” cited Plastow, noting gym equipment and teammates among the glaring omissions. “I’m lucky to participate in distance running because I don’t have many training needs other than my trusty tennis shoes and some little dumbbells. I have had to find some at-home alternatives to some exercises, but for the most part the biggest change is not having my teammates to run with.”
The challenges for Raymond will be much greater. Not only does he lose team camaraderie and momentum from the indoor season, but now he has highly specialized athletes departed all over the globe without much of a plan other than workouts and questions.
“It’s extremely disappointing for the athletes who worked so hard throughout the year, but most of our team at least had an indoor season,” stated Raymond. “I feel especially bad for the seniors and also those whose main event only happened in outdoor track. We had 4-5 athletes who really focused on the javelin and they didn’t get to compete at all. I believe the success we had indoors will help carry us through and keep people motivated for the future. As disappointing as this situation is, I don’t feel that it will derail the momentum we’ve created.”