Pentathlon record-setter Grace Peterson living up to high expectations

GVL/Kevin Sielaff
Grace Peterson

GVL/Kevin Sielaff Grace Peterson

Jacob Arvidson

The 800-meter run: the most hated event of the pentathlon.

Just under three laps around the track in basically an all-out sprint. Not to mention it is the fifth and final event of the competition so an athlete’s entire body is bound to be tired.

Imagine being an athlete facing those last 800 meters of track. Now add to the equation a chance at a school record.

This was the situation for Grand Valley State’s Grace Peterson Friday, Jan. 13 at the Bob Eubanks Open as she approached the starting line.

The junior had already calculated exactly what she needed to run the grueling 800 meters in to secure the mark she had positioned herself to reach: a new GVSU pentathlon record.

Now it was just about the execution. She needed to run the race in faster than 2 minutes and 32 seconds. Though it would be a personal best time, she knew she had it in her.

“For the (multi-event athletes), since none of us are 800 runners, it’s so mental,” she said. “It’s just how much you actually want it. It’s a blessing and a curse because it hurts a lot more when you have to do that.”

Peterson flew around the track, coming down the home stretch as the clock reached 2 minutes and 30 seconds.

“There’s a clock on the end of the finish line and I saw the 2:30,” she said. “I knew I was really close, but the clock is a little bit off, so I didn’t know.”

Crossing the finish line, she collapsed on the ground with exhaustion. She knew she was near the time she wanted, but at this point catching her breath and letting her jello-like legs recover was more important than worrying about performance.

“I had so many teammates come up to me and say, ‘Grace you did so great,’” she said. “They were congratulating me just for finishing in general. One of my teammates took off my shoes for me and helped me up and brought me water. They were so sweet about it.”

And then Peterson’s official time flashed up on the screen: 2:31.70. It was senior Samora Nesbitt who saw it first, knowing right away what it meant.

“He ran over and was like, ‘Grace you did it,’” Peterson said. “I had baby deer legs trying to get off the ground trying to celebrate. My arms were flung up in the air. I was so excited.”

Peterson had secured a place in the record books with a score of 3,223 points in the pentathlon, dislodging Jocelyn Kuksa’s 2009 mark of 3,218 points.

“That was one of her main goals for indoor,” fellow pentathlete Jessica Gustad said. “She wanted to break the pentathlon record. When I found out, I was so happy for her. I ran up to her and gave her a big hug. There is nobody who is more deserving of that than her.”

A record in any event would not have seemed possible to Peterson during her freshman year in 2014.

“My parents can attest to this. I was just a mess at the beginning. I got here and noticed how well everybody else did,” she said. “I know that I didn’t really seem like I was going to be much of a contributor. 

“I had a personal record in high jump that got a lot of attention from smaller schools, but all the high jumpers here are fantastic. And then my hurdles time wasn’t anything like the hurdlers here, and I had never long jumped before, I’d never shot putted, I’d never run anything further than a 400, and that was one time ever.”

She had to spend her time learning all these new skills in order to be successful in both the pentathlon and the heptathlon. Skills like throwing the javelin and running longer distances were completely foreign.

At the same time Peterson had to balance a rigorous academic program with work and track, something that weighed on her, but giving up on her sport wasn’t something she was willing to do.

“Track is my stress relief, it’s where all my friends are. It’s my social hour honestly,” Peterson said. “Even though we’re all here working toward a bigger goal, it is where you get to see the people that you love and you get to hang out with them all the time.”

But dedication is a personality trait that sets Peterson apart and put her on the path to success.

“Grace is one of the hardest working people I know,” Gustad said. “At practice she’s always one of the first ones there and one of the last ones to leave.”

Her junior year has brought the breakthrough she worked so hard for.

Her performance at the Bob Eubanks Open gave her a GVSU record, but next on the chopping block is a provisional qualifying mark which will give Peterson a shot at the national meet.

She will need to score at least 3,500 points in order to make a national push, GVSU multi-events coach Steve Jones said.

“That’s about 60 more points per event,” he said. “That’s 2 inches in the high jump, or 0.2 seconds in the hurdles, or 3 seconds in the 800. As long as she keeps developing and progressing the way she has been, I think she can reach that level.”

Peterson, who hasn’t made the trip to the national meet yet in her career, would be honored to represent the Lakers on the biggest college stage.

“I can’t even imagine,” she said. “Grand Valley is so close-knit. We’ve even got our own little jumps squad and it’s like a family.

“I would feel very honored to be able to do something like that for them. Even having broken the record, everybody was so congratulatory and I just felt like I was glad to have all these people around me, encouraging me. I want to do something like (go to nationals) for them.”

Peterson admits the hurdles are her biggest enemy at this point, but she credits the coaches for helping her hone in on and develop each individual skill. Throws coach Sean Denard and sprints and hurdles coach Alan Dunson have both played a significant role in her blossoming into a strong competitor, but Jones is the one who has given her the biggest boost, she said.

“I love Alan and Sean, but coach Steve is the multi coach,” she said. “Even though he doesn’t coach us through every event, during my freshman year he did. He was a multi when he was a track and field athlete in college, so he is very understanding about the whole thing.

“Steve has always been really great. Even if you aren’t where you want to be, he’s going to continue to help you try and get there.”

Jones has seen how far Peterson has come since joining the GVSU team as a freshman and he can tell what she has ahead of her.

“She can reach the national qualifying mark this year,” he said. “Next year I think she can get to the (national) meet.”