By Daniel Paulling
Grace Alexander never imagined she'd be here.
Yes, she was an excellent swimmer at Rollins College, breaking team records in the three distance freestyle events. And, sure, she grew up excelling in cross country and track. But she never thought she'd become one of the best amateur triathletes in the world despite limited experience.
"It's definitely a surprise," says Alexander, who majored in environmental studies at Rollins. "If you had asked three years ago if I would be where I'm at, I would not have guessed this."
Where she's at is on the cusp of becoming a professional triathlete after finishing fourth in her age group in the Olympic distance at the ITU Age Group Standard World Championships in Australia in September, a result that continued her meteoric rise in a sport she only picked up two years ago. Alexander was the fourth female finisher at the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championship in Cleveland in August, one year after being the 15th woman to finish in the same competition.
Alexander credits her swimming for Rollins and former head coach Richard Morris for her success. Swimming is usually the most difficult of the three disciplines for triathletes, giving her an immediate advantage.
"There's so many people that come from a running background or a cycling background and don't have the swimming background that I have, and they just struggle to get the technique and don't understand quite how to put a good workout together," says Alexander, who still uses the workouts she did at Rollins, ones that helped her become an NCAA "B" qualifier. "Swimming at Rollins under Coach Morris was amazing, especially since he switched me from mid-to-short-distance freestyle to distance freestyle, which obviously translates over well to triathlon."
Morris — who also coached Alexander's older brother, Tom Alexander, at Rollins — recalls that switching Grace's events was an easy decision.
"Sophomore year, as I remember, Grace started playing with her opponents," says Morris, who retired as head coach in 2016 but still is the director of health education at Rollins. "She loved to pace the race and then blow by the other swimmers in the last 50. That worked much better in the 500 than the 200, so Grace figured the 1000 might be fun also.
"The whole conference knew her reputation her junior year. Coaches could be heard yelling to their swimmers to pull out because Grace was coming on."
Alexander says she took a break from athletic activities for a year and a half after graduating from Rollins before signing up for a 5K run in the spring of 2016 and a triathlon that summer. Her success led to an invitation to join an elite amateur team in her hometown of Atlanta last year.
She now follows a rigorous 15-hour-a-week training regimen. Alexander wakes up at 5 a.m. throughout the week for a morning workout, works from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. and then does a second workout before eating dinner and going to sleep. Weekends are for long training sessions. Each week, she swims three or four times, runs and bikes four times each and lifts weights twice.
This offseason and next summer are vital to Alexander's future in the sport.
Because of her performance in several races this year, she has the option to become a pro by next September. She's choosing between doing so in Ironman (a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run) and Half Ironman (a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike and 13.1-mile run) or at the Olympic distance (a 0.93-mile swim, 24.8-mile bike and 6.2-mile run).
Turning pro will require her to find the sponsorship that would allow her to support herself as she spends more hours each week training. Triathlon could become a full-time job.
"You're competing against people who are the best of the best and also race as a career," says Brandon Krout, one of Alexander's training partners and who recently turned pro. "They have resources dedicated to them succeeding, they take it very seriously and train twice as much as someone who has a different career.
"I think Grace's future in triathlon will be just about whatever she wants it to be. Over the next few years, as she ages and becomes stronger, her biking and running will only improve."
Alexander is looking forward to that future, the one she didn't see coming just three years ago.
"This is definitely something I'm thinking could last more than a few years, hopefully," she says. "I think that there's potential hopefully I can improve enough to keep doing professionally, if I do go professional, the next decade or so at least."