GAINESVILLE — Grace VanDeGrift had envisioned running her first cross country race for the University of Florida many times in her head, but the reality exceeded the expectation.
VanDeGrift finished fourth in her first race, 2 miles on Sept. 2, and was the top freshman female finisher after clocking an 11:34.12.
With that, she became the first UF female freshman since 2008 to place in the top five overall in her season-opening race, and one of just three UF freshman runners since 2001 to accomplish a top-five finish in her first race. VanDeGrift averaged a 5:47.1 mile and was just 1.1 seconds off a top-three finish. She was named the Southeastern Conference's co-Women's Freshman of the Week along with Jessica Jackson of the University of Arkansas.
"College is so much different than high school and I definitely was nervous coming into it," said VanDeGrift, a former Durant High School track and cross country standout. "The first meet was so exciting. It was only 2 miles, just to go out there and see what it's like.
"When I found out I was SEC Freshman of the Week I was really flattered. That's such an honor because the SEC is such a tough conference to be in."
VanDeGrift followed up with an 11th-place finish at the Sept. 9 USF Invitational, clocking in at 18:21.29 in the 5K event.
Her love of running began while watching her father compete in triathlons. At age 5 she competed in her first event, but didn't start running competitively until sixth grade. Although she had participated in various sports, it didn't take VanDeGrift long to realize running was the one she loved.
"I always wanted to run in college and I hoped to be good enough," she said. "Then in my high school career, I started improving a lot and that made me want to run in college and run throughout high school."
It was her drive and determination that first caught UF coach Todd Morgan's attention in the recruiting process.
"I just thought she was a great athlete and definitely had a lot of room to grow as far as being a great runner," he said. "I also just like her mind set and approach. I could just tell she was going to handle pressure well and be a driven person."
VanDeGrift's drive isn't limited to running. In 2009, she played guitar and performed a Taylor Swift song to win the Brandon Idol teen competition. Only a few of her teammates have heard her sing and play. And for now, she plans to keep it that way.
"I have played for the team before,'' VanDeGrift said. "A few of the Gators have heard me, but not very many. It's a well-kept secret."
Though she's a lifelong Gator fan, Florida wasn't originally part of her college plans.
"At first I was like, I don't want to stay in state, I want to go somewhere else," she said. "But then I came here and visited the University of Florida and I loved it.
"I love this campus, I love everything about it. It's close enough to home, but far enough away. The people here, the coach here, it's just an awesome environment."
But achieving dreams never comes easily, which VanDeGrift has learned quickly. College life is demanding, particularly for student-athletes. Her average day starts at 6:15 a.m. and includes classes, two practices (morning and afternoon), two study halls and time for meals.
"I definitely am tired when I go home, I definitely want to sleep,'' she said. "You have to have very good time management in college. Being a student athlete in college is like having two full-time jobs. It's very time consuming. But I wouldn't have it any other way. I love running here and I love being a student here as well."
Antonya English can be reached at English@sptimes.com.