The list of the best female athletes to ever come through Gordon Lee High School is a long and storied one.
And when Graduation Day in May of 2020 rolls around, one athlete may end up standing above all the rest...if she’s not there already.
For the third time in her three years at Gordon Lee, Gracie O’Neal is once again the Walker County Girls’ Athlete of the Year. And as has been the case since her freshman year, O’Neal is quick to give credit where she believes credit is due.
“It’s awesome,” said the senior-to-be, flashing a smile. “I really wasn’t expecting it, but I just want to thank God for it. In all my sports, He’s the one that’s given me the talent and the ability to do it when I know that it can be taken away from me any day. I’m not defined by sports. He’s the one that I’m defined by, so I just have to thank Him.”
O’Neal’s junior year started with a difficult personal decision as the multi-sport star opted to give up volleyball to focus on the fall cross country season.
“I started out trying to balance both of them again, but I couldn’t play (volleyball) as much as I wanted to and give them both equal time, so I decided just to concentrate on the running,” she explained. “Plus, the state championship for both sports was on the exact same day, so I ended up having to choose, which was a really hard decision because I love them both.”
Focused solely on running for the first fall of her high school career, O’Neal averaged 20:21 for the season and walked away with the Walker County Girls’ Cross Country Runner of the Year award for the second time. She also won the Walker County championship, the Region 3-A Public School championship and a second consecutive Class A Public School state championship. She picked up three more top-10 finishes along the way and helped the Lady Trojans to the region runner-up trophy and a fourth-place finish at state.
She immediately went from the cross country course to the basketball court and became a leader for a young Gordon Lee squad as her nightly averages of 11 points and 10.3 rebounds was enough to earn her first team honors in always-tough Region 6-A.
“Cross country went well,” she recalled. “I got that state title and that was awesome and then I went straight into basketball season. We’re a growing team and as we go, we’re building a program. Honestly, it was a really fun season.”
From there, it was on to the track where O’Neal made another decision prior to the start of the spring season.
Already the most decorated girls’ runner in school history, she decided to forgo the 800 meters — an event she won at state the year before — in order to try and double up in the two longest distance races in the program.
The move would pay off as she swept the area and state titles in both distances and helped the Lady Trojans to their first team state title in track in five years. Not only does O’Neal now own the GLHS girls’ school record in cross country (18:19, set in her sophomore year in Rome), her name also sits in front of record times in the 800 (2:23), the 1600 (5:14) and the 3200 (11:23).
The latter came some six weeks ago at the 2019 Music City Distance Carnival at Vanderbilt University in Nashville when she placed fifth overall in the high school girls’ race against other runners from across the nation. Her time beat her previous personal-best of 11:27, set at May’s GHSA state championships in Albany when she won the individual state title by nearly a full two minutes. She would go on to earn a share of the Walker County Girls’ Track Athlete of the Year award for the second straight year.
“Track is really my favorite and winning that team title was awesome because we were all there together,” she said. “We had finally done it after coming so close for so many years.”
O’Neal said that while winning titles is fun, going into virtually each race as the odds-on favorite does bring with it a certain level of pressure. However, it’s pressure she does her best to ignore.
“I just have to remember to have fun with it,” she said. “I’ve had times when I’ve let the pressure get to me and that’s when it’s not fun. This is all meant to be fun and I’m supposed to have a good time with it and do what I love.”
With seven individual state titles — two in cross-country and five in track — plus one team title already to her credit, O’Neal knows there is still more out there that she can accomplish, while also preparing for what she hopes will be a future in running.
“It’s crazy and it really doesn’t seem real, but my goal is to get three more (state titles) next year and finish with 10,” she added, noting that several schools, including ACC and SEC programs, have shown interest in her abilities. “I want to run in college. I just have to figure out where that is going to be and talk to the coaches. But I just want to go where God wants me (to go) and I just want to enjoy my senior year because this is going to be my last one.”