By Rob Moseley
Two years ago, Molly Grabill made her Oregon debut at the Bill Dellinger Invitational. She finished 16th, kicking off a freshman year in which she visited heights that are the thing of dreams.
Grabill, a sophomore from Poway, Calif., will finally make her return to the meet Saturday, on the 5,000-meter course in Springfield. The journey in between took Grabill to nightmarish depths.
In late November of 2012, following a redshirt season in cross country, Grabill was the victim of a despicable act – a 19-year-old local man threw a rock from a freeway overpass, which struck Grabill in the face while she was driving and caused a horrific wreck. The recovery process took nearly a year, but Grabill is back running for the Ducks, having scored at each of the first two meets of the season, entering Saturday’s home event.
“It’s awesome to see her back out there,” said Chris Brewer, a member of the UO men’s team and Grabill’s passenger that fateful night. “It’s really impressive, where she’s come from.
“She was pretty tough about it. I think that positive mindset is the key.”
Grabill, who ran for Oregon at the 2011 Pac-12 Championships, NCAA West Regional and NCAA Championships, endured an initial recovery of some six months, when concussion symptoms prevented her from training at 100 percent. But from the removal of braces required following the incident, to joining the Ducks’ preseason camp in Sunriver, to the looming replacement of a temporary tooth in November, Grabill has learned to appreciate the small steps in her recovery, rather than dwell on the incident itself.
This summer, Grabill again made the drive from Southern California to Eugene, passing under the same overpass where the incident occurred. She says it didn’t even occur to her at the time.
“There was a time I was pretty angry,” Grabill said. “But such is life. It goes on. I’m not an angry person.
“Each little bit puts it more and more in the past.”
Grabill, who doesn’t remember the initial incident, spent about 10 days afterward being cared for by her mom. She couldn’t attend class, and was bed-ridden for long stretches.
“I’d literally wait by the door for them to come home,” Grabill said. “Having people to hang out with made it easier. … It really shows what kind of friends you have when times are hard.”
Some of the hardest days were when Grabill had to accept her ongoing symptoms wouldn’t allow her to participate in the indoor track season, and then the outdoor season. Eventually, this fall’s cross country season became the goal.
The process of getting back on her feet wasn’t easy. It began with “a bunch of frustrating runs where I’d just feel terrible and not run again for a week,” she said. Almost daily tests confirmed that symptoms lingered.
But by the summer, the fog began to lift. Training no longer caused headaches and dizziness. Without a doubt, getting back on a normal running schedule was the biggest step in Grabill’s recovery.
At times, she’d questioned whether she’d ever do so again, and if Oregon was the place for her. Those doubts were answered once Grabill was able to get back to her normal training schedule.
“I was just more positive – it changed my mood, gave me a chance to clear my head,” Grabill said. “I didn’t have that when I didn’t run.”
At the the end of July, Grabill was thrilled to have braces removed – for the third time in her life. She was training on her own and in small groups by then.
On Sept. 6, Grabill made her competitive return, finishing second in the three-mile Portland State Viking Classic, in 16 minutes, 10.52 seconds. Then, the Ducks ensconced themselves in Sunriver for three weeks to train, another important milepost for Grabill. Immersed in the experience of living and training with her fellow Ducks, she felt like a member of the team again.
In Boston late last month, Grabill again scored for Oregon, running 5,000 meters in 17:34. In perhaps the best indication of Grabill’s return to normalcy, like the rest of the team she's looking toward the postseason as the ultimate test of her fitness.
“Just getting back running wasn’t the goal,” Grabill said. “Competing at an elite level is what I’ve always wanted to do.”
But with all Grabill has gone through, she also can appreciate the steps it took to get back to that place. Now, when a workout is tough, she says, she’ll think back to what she overcame in the last year, and know she’s got plenty of fight left in the tank.
“I’m still taking it one day at a time,” Grabill said. “Of course once you get back into it, you’re excited to see how good you can be. But I’m still excited just to be running every day.
“I’m feeling good, and I’m still here.”