CLERMONT, Fla. – It would be no surprise if Candyce McGrone were out of track and field. She had done so little for so long, skeptics thought she had quit.
She wanted to quit. Tried to quit. But when you are conditioned not to quit, you don’t.
Not with a grandmother and brother asserting greatness was destiny. Not with two coaches determined to see potential realized. Not with memory of a niece who died as a 2-year-old.
“It motivated me to keep pursuing my dream because I knew she could never be able to pursue her dreams,” McGrone said.
That is how the 27-year-old from Indianapolis came to prepare for the U.S. Olympic Trials, which open Friday at Eugene, Ore. Her first race is in Saturday’s 100-meter heats.
The Warren Central graduate belongs to a group of pro sprinters known as Star Athletics. On a track 32 miles northwest of Walt Disney World, they train at Montverde Academy, a prep school whose basketball alumni include Ben Simmons, the No. 1 pick of the recent NBA draft.
McGrone’s odyssey has taken twists and turns.
One of the saddest is that a friend was among the 49 victims in a June 12 shooting at an Orlando nightclub. One of the oddest is that she lives in a guest house on an estate formerly owned by the Osama bin Laden family.
She labors in anonymity in a sport already suffering from attention deficit. Allyson Felix and Dafne Schippers are gold-medal favorites at the Rio Olympics, and both lost races to McGrone last summer. Few noticed.
She has been hurt more often than she has been fit. On one of her frequent trips to Indianapolis, she sought recent treatment on her back at St. Vincent Sports Performance. So it is hard to know what to expect in Eugene. Yet she likes being an underdog.
“I’m kind of grateful I did go through all the stuff I went through in my life so far,” she said. “It made me a better person.”
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McGrone was born prematurely March 24, 1989, in Norfolk, Va., where her father, Thomas, was in the Navy. She weighed 5 pounds, 3 ounces, and fit in the palm of her father’s hand. For months, her mother, Viola, sat up all night with the newborn.
Before McGrone was in school, she moved to Indianapolis, where the family name was known in another sport. Paternal grandfather Frank McGrone was a heavyweight wrestling state champion for Wood High School in 1959 and 1960.
While her parents were working, McGrone was walked to School 91, 5111 Evanston Ave., by her maternal grandmother, Nettie Keller. The granddaughter loved basketball, but the grandmother discovered another sport was more appropriate. When the grandchildren raced each other in the middle of the street, Candyce beat everyone.
She was the only girl.
Her grandmother continues to encourage her, especially during low points.
She often tells her granddaughter, “You got that gift from God.”
Viola McGrone was once the runner in the family, jogging on the Butler University track or on the Central Canal’s dirt pathway. Candyce was having none of it.
That changed when a coach at Broad Ripple High School saw her in gym class and urged her to go out for track. Her mother gave $100 to Candyce’s brother, Tim, with instructions to buy spikes. They went to Dick’s Sporting Goods at Castleton Mall, where Tim proudly announced to a stranger: “She’s going to be the best woman ever to come out of Indiana.”
Tim supported his sister’s new outlet. Too many of his friends’ sisters, he said, turned to crime or floundered without a father figure. When she started running track, Candyce said, it felt like an escape.
McGrone’s introduction to the sport was bumpy. While leading her first race, she drifted into another runner’s lane and was disqualified. It is rudimentary to use starting blocks in the sprints, but she didn’t. Yet by the end of her freshman season, she was third in the state in the 100 meters.
Her parents had by then divorced, and she went to live with her father the next year so she could attend Warren Central. She thrived, leading the Warriors to three state team championships and winning five state titles herself.
A local track coach, Jeff Williams, was asked to watch her and told the family he could correct flaws in her form. He began training her and then became a volunteer assistant coach at the school. Workouts included running uphill, even on a muddy surface, at Paul Ruster Park on the east side. The coach became like a second father.
McGrone’s family rallied around her, as it has to this day. Her mother was disappointed so many other parents did not attend their daughters’ meets, but she wouldn’t miss one. She called herself “the team mom,” bringing Gatorade and snacks for all the girls.
Williams said McGrone did not believe in herself until she ran in the under-20 USA Junior Championships, held at IUPUI in 2007. She was fourth in both the 100 and 200, meaning she was one of the best in the nation, not just in Indiana.
“She freaked out,” Williams said.
That meet was the climax of her junior season and should have sent her soaring toward a breakout senior year. Running success, however, has never been in a straight line for her.
She spent hours alone while her mother was at the hospital with another brother, Tommy, now 29. Once a brilliant student, Tommy’s mind and vision were impaired after surgery for a brain tumor. Seeing her brother that way “broke me,” she said.
Without elaborating, McGrone said “bad stuff” affected her senior year. Life off the track sometimes came at her too fast.
“This has been about life. It’s hasn’t been so much about track,” Williams said. “There was so much that Candyce had to go through to get to where she is. That’s why all of us are pretty protective.”
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The family wanted her to leave Indiana for college. Her mother told her she needed to mature so she could become “the woman you’re so eager to be.”
McGrone didn’t enroll until second semester at Florida State, where she stayed for two seasons. She showed a glimpse of what was to come when she ran the fastest 200 meters of the 2010 East Regional, featuring half of the nation’s teams. Two weeks later, though, she failed to make the final at the NCAA Championships.
Her college career to that point was one of unfulfilled promise. She transferred to Oklahoma.
The Sooners’ associate women’s coach, Dana Boone, built a bond with McGrone. Results followed. The sprinter unexpectedly won an NCAA title in the 100 meters in 2011.
McGrone wavered on whether to turn pro early, then did so when Boone took a job elsewhere. Her family opposed the move, but she signed a multiyear contract with Nike and moved to Austin, Texas.
Her story, and her track career, might have ended there.
For the next three seasons, she rarely ran any faster than she did in high school. She bounced from coach to coach and was never healthy. She never made a final at the USA Championships.
She tripped and fell months before the 2012 Olympic Trials, knocking her hip and pelvis out of place. She ran at the trials because “she had to,” she said, fulfilling requirements of the shoe contract. She advanced one round of the 100 meters and finished last in a semifinal.
She relocated to the Sarasota, Fla., area and connected with a prominent speed coach, Loren Seagrave, at nearby IMG Academy. While home for Indianapolis 500 weekend, she was driving her mother’s car when it collided with another vehicle, leaving her with a concussion.
“They said when she hit the dashboard, if she had hit a little lower on the temple, she wouldn’t even have been here,” Viola McGrone said.
The sprinter said she has scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, and that the collision contributed to back spasms.
McGrone had enough financial support to keep training because of the shoe contract. The pain of injury wasn’t as debilitating as that of fresh grief.
Her niece, Tim’Ajalae, daughter of her oldest brother, was diagnosed with a tumor at the top of her spinal cord. McGrone said the little girl could not crawl or speak. Her niece died June 24, 2013. McGrone was in the hospital room.
“I had to watch my brother say goodbye to her. That was like the hardest moment of my life,” she said.
She keeps a piece of her niece’s hair, hangs a pair of her shoes in the car and wears a purple bracelet with her niece’s nickname, “Lae Lae.” She has a shrine to Tim’Ajalae at home.
“In 2014, I just didn’t care anymore,” McGrone said. “I’m still emotional about it now.”
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By that fall, McGrone had made up her mind: Move on and enroll in a police academy. Track and field isn’t a high-paying sport anyway, and it wasn’t worth it.
Dennis Mitchell, a three-time Olympic medalist, had been asking McGrone for years to let him coach her. Always, the answer had been no. Finally, giving track one last try, she said yes.
Initially, she regretted it. She clashed with her new coach. Workouts were “crazy,” she said.
But when she ran 200 meters in 22.56 seconds on April 11, 2015 – then the fastest time in the world – the evidence was in. What Mitchell was making her do was working.
The coach said he always saw talent in McGrone but wanted to know what made her tick.
“Once I can get a picture of what that is, then I can start to refine and make it better,” he said. “And that, to me, is a puzzle. You come to me either as a complete picture, or you come to me with a lot of little pieces missing. My job as a coach is to fill those pieces in.”
Mitchell, 50, is a controversial figure because of a doping violation late in his track career. He coaches a convicted doper, Justin Gatlin, a 2004 Olympic gold medalist who had a world record invalidated and served a four-year doping suspension. USA Track & Field has come under fire for retaining Mitchell as a relay coach.
Williams and McGrone’s family scoff at suggestion of any secret doping regimen. She is “scared to do anything,” Williams said, meaning drugs. McGrone would have run this fast all along, she said, if not for injuries. Mitchell said anyone with suspicions is welcome at any workout.
“But if you don’t see what we do every day, then we don’t worry about what your opinion is,” he said. “This girl came here and worked her ass off every single day. No one saw the tears, no one saw the pain she was going through.
“No one saw the transformation to get her to national championships and World Championships. That’s a testament to her hard work.”
Some poor races followed McGrone’s early good ones a year ago, so she came to nationals at Eugene as a question mark. She became a footnote. She ran a semifinal of the 100 meters in a wind-aided 10.91, the fastest non-advancing time in women’s track history.
Later, she qualified for the 200-meter final but drew lane 2, an unfavorable position. Mitchell noticed determination he hadn’t seen before when he found her in the warm-up area.
“Coach, I’m going to make this team today,” she told him.
She did. She finished second to local favorite Jenna Prandini of Oregon. Past the finish line, McGrone fell to the ground, wept, and cried out, “Finally, finally!”
She carried momentum into a July 17 race in Monaco, where she beat Dutch sprinter Schippers, and into the World Championships in Beijing. She lowered her 200-meter time to 22.01, missing a bronze medal by four-hundredths of a second.
She again became part of track trivia – no one had ever run as fast as that and not won a worlds medal. Schippers won gold in 21.63, the fastest time in the event since 1998.
McGrone came as close as any Hoosier woman has to winning an individual track medal at a worlds or Olympics. She cried, but the tears weren’t of relief or joy this time. To come all this way … and for what?
“You know what? That motivated me,” she said. “I feel like I didn’t need to get a medal last year. I think I would have been a different person. It made me hungrier. It made me train more.”
Although hers is a solitary existence – she lives alone in a guest house she rents for $800 a month on a 17-acre estate that was once home to one of bin Laden’s brothers – she said she isn’t lonely. Her circle is small. On one recent afternoon, she checked her cell phone and counted 29,000 unopened e-mails and 36 unread text messages. She is friendly with those in her training group, including 18-year-old pro Kaylin Whitney and Ivory Coast’s Murielle Ahoure.
Even with a shoe contract and prize money, McGrone’s 2015 income was little more than $150,000. She drives the same 2009 Dodge Challenger she bought after she turned pro.
It is not money that has sustained her all these years. It has been loved ones. It has been Lae Lae. It has been her own Olympic dream.
“I didn’t quit because I felt like it was a calling to be a track star,” McGrone said.
Call IndyStar reporter David Woods at (317) 444-6195. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.