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Twisted ankle turns into lucky break
Carlisle's Graves walks onto UNC track team
Sunday, April 15, 2012
By CHRIS PRIDE - Bulletin Sports Writer
When former Carlisle sprinter Chris Graves sprained his ankle playing Ultimate Frisbee in the early weeks of his first semester at the University of North Carolina, little did he know it would be a blessing in disguise.
Graves initially had no plans to continue his track and field career at the ACC school, but a trip to physical therapy to help his injured ankle set everything in motion.
After some small talk with a physical therapist about his track background, he found out that he unknowingly missed walk-on tryouts for UNC’s track team just a few weeks prior. So instead of waiting till the spring to seek out head coach Dennis Craddock, he sent him an email to express his interest about running for the program along with a list of times.
Graves got a reply to come in, talk and fill out some paper work, and once the ankle was healed, he showed up to a few practices and showcased his talents.
That first impression was enough. From there, he was on the UNC track team.
“It was so crazy how this all happened,” Graves said. “After a series of events and once my ankle healed, I was able to show coach what I could do, and next thing I know I’m apart of the team. Through a series of events, spraining my ankle was probably the best thing that’s happened to me in college so far.”
One of the biggest initial challenges Graves faced was proving he belonged on a team filled with national recruits. He said that the first few practices were a bit awkward and intimidating as he tried to fit in on a team filled with athletes that had been running for most of their lives.
The freshman is one of two walk-on sprinters at UNC.
“It’s definitely been humbling to run with these guys, but I feel like I’ve been able to keep up and it makes me feel great to know I’m able to run with these people,” Graves said. “You have to know you belong there, and at first I felt had to prove myself. But after a while I got more comfortable and knew I just had to do the best I can to get better.”
Coming from a small program that featured mainly independent runners, being thrown into a more team-oriented situation has been a welcomed change, Graves said. He noted that it is almost surreal to be surrounded by so much talent after being the main star at Carlisle.
It’s been an evolving track journey for the Reidsville, N.C., native from his first year at Carlisle to where he is now.
After starting just one race as a freshman with nothing more than tennis shoes, learning better technique and using the starting blocks were the first steps for Graves. He didn’t fully feel comfortable with the blocks until his senior year, and with limited coaching and practice time, it was mainly a few track meets each spring that encompassed his season.
Now that he’s fallen into the hands of the Tar Heels’ coaching staff, he’s been able to get the necessary tools to help him grow as a sprinter. After being sidelined for most of the indoor track season with a hamstring injury, Graves has been showing steady improvement this spring. One of the biggest assets to his continued growth has been learning from sprinting coach Davian Clarke.
“Having an Olympic runner is totally different than just some dad,” said Graves. “Not to say our coach in high school was a bad coach, but Coach Clarke has taught me so much since I’ve been here.”
Clarke competed for Jamaica in the Olympics, helping his country earn a bronze medal in the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta as part of the 4x400 relay. Clarke’s specialty was the 200 meters, and he ran a personal-best 20.72 in 1999. While Graves enjoyed running the 100 in high school, his focus in college has been on the 200.
His goals are simple — to improve everyday and stay dedicated to the program. With his focus on the 200, he wants to consistently hit the 21-low mark and break 21 by the end of his career.
Clarke believes he has a lot of potential in the event.
“When you look at Chris, his obvious strengths are his muscular structure. Getting him to use that strength and relate it to sprinting will be the challenge over the next few years at Carolina,” he said. “I see him as a great 200 and 400 meter sprinter for the Heels in years to come. We just need to keep him focused and training hard.”
Clarke also has started to help mold his young sprinter into a more fundamentally sound runner. Technique is very important in a race that is separated my hundredths and tenths of a second, Graves said.
“We work on a lot technical stuff like running form, pushing out of the blocks and block clearance,” Clarke said. “It’s all about execution of race strategy and using the right energy sources for the specific event. He has improved a lot in those departments, and now we’re working on more speed runs to replicate the meet environment.”
Competing for UNC has been a far cry from what Graves was accustomed to at Carlisle, where running was seen more as fun. In college, Graves is tied up from 2 p.m. until 10 p.m. almost daily due to track.
“Running in high school wasn’t very serious, but here at UNC it’s more like a job,” he said. “We have therapy, then practice, followed by weight lifting, then we have to eat within 30 minutes of that before heading to an athletic study hall. It’s seriously like a job where I won’t get back until around 10. But the structure has helped me stay more focused and committed.”
While the transition to a school of nearly 30,000 students from one that had just over 100 may seem difficult, the freshman found that being a part of the team has helped make that adjustment smoother. The track program has opened up a variety of social networks, and he noted that the various communities make it seem not as big of a campus.
“There are so many little communities, such as my hall, or the track team, and you think you might not see people again after the first time, but that’s not the case,” said Graves. “I thought jumping from Carlisle would be difficult, but it really hasn’t been to be honest.”