It’s the national meet, and your relay member is barreling down the runway ready to hand off.
You go for the baton but don’t quite get it cleanly. So you reach again, and then, all of the sudden, you feel something you’ve felt before. And you know it’s not good.
You feel your shoulder pop out of its socket and start to dangle beside you like an ornament on a Christmas tree. Helpless.
Oh, but there’s no time to comfortably take care of it. Your team is in position to earn All-American status, so you have to spend the next part of the race fighting through pain, trying to pop your shoulder back in place while running the race of your life.
Pretty unbelievable, right?
UW-Eau Claire senior Ryan Graham thought so too. Until it happened to him just before his 800 leg of the distance medley relay at the NCAA Division III indoor track and field meet on March 10 in Naperville, Ill.
“I’m just like, screaming, too,” Graham recalled. “The race is a huge blur, but after 150 meters, I can finally feel it slide back in, and then I was like ‘OK, I have to get back in the race.’ So I hopped on the leader and hung on as best I could.”
Nevertheless, when Graham was able to situate himself, he ran a 1:54 and didn’t lose any ground as he handed off to the anchor leg — which was Matt Cooper in the mile.
That Blugolds quartet of Kyler Lueck, Hunter Henk, Graham and Cooper finished fourth in a time of 10 minutes, 0.73 seconds.
“He handed it off, we were basically right there with the lead group,” UW-Eau Claire distance coach Dan Schwamberger said. “A 1:54. It was pretty remarkable.”
Graham’s blur unfortunately came after his gruesome exchange involving his left shoulder. He remembers all of that in detail.
Back story first, Graham has dislocated his shoulder roughly 10 other times in his life due to hockey or other sorts of activities. So he knew it wasn’t the strongest limb on his body. And while he never expected it to happen during a race, he knew right away the diagnosis.
Lueck led off the race with a strong 1,200, and Henk did his part to keep the Blugolds near the front during his 400. And then came the handoff heard ‘round Division III track and field.
“So what happens was, he (Henk) is coming in pretty quick,” Graham said. “I get out fine, and I end up overextending. So we miss our first attempt at the handoff. So we kind of both freak out, and I reach further back to try and grab it, and right as I do that, he kind of shoves the baton into my hand. And that’s what caused it to dislocate.”
Schwamberger, a stopwatch in hand all set to take splits at each checkpoint on the track, noticed his senior captain grimacing.
From his position on the oval, he knew something was off.
“The setup at North Central is a little bit unique,” Schwamberger said. “I was just on the first corner probably at 60 meters into the race. I could tell right away that something — at first I thought he lost the baton — but by the time he hit the backstretch, I could tell he was favoring it. And knowing his history, I thought it had to be his shoulder.
“I think both (head coach) Chip (Schneider) and I thought he should probably stop. I couldn’t imagine what it felt like.”
Graham didn’t know what to do. All he knew was that there was an overwhelming pain in his body.
But also dangling just like the shoulder was the stick as he shifted it from left hand to right hand about half a dozen times.
“I switched the baton like seven times out of my hands, so I don’t know how I didn’t drop it at that point,” Graham said. “I’ve seen pictures, and I’m holding it with like two fingers trying to get my shoulder to pop back in.”
That’s how he spent the first 60 to 100 meters of the race. The time’s he’s done it before, Graham has had the luxury of time to brace himself for the pop. But he was caught up in a nationals race in an activity heavily dependent on arm swing.
Still, he’s suffered enough dislocated shoulders that he knew if he could just pop it back in, it would feel better and he could make it through the race. Finally, just about halfway around the first curve, he was able to do so and shot back up toward the leaders.
“He really just kind of maintained,” Schwamberger said. “I was really worried that all that adrenaline that he used getting it back in that the last 200, he’d just die. But he held form. He still went through the first 200 in 27 or 28, so it wasn’t like he lost any ground. He just kind of maintained, and it was just a solid leg.”
Despite using up a ton of energy to re-situate one of the most painful injuries imaginable, Graham held on and clawed his way down the final 200 to hand off in a good position.
Cooper then split close to a personal best as the four finished as All-Americans for a third-straight year in the event.
Graham is the only consistent member of those races as he ran on a national championship relay two years ago and a national runner-up one last season. The other three had not yet received an All-American trophy. And that’s what ultimately made the captain pull through.
“The biggest thing for me was that I was with three guys who never got the opportunity to race at nationals or become All-Americans, as well,” the Maple Grove, Minn., native said. “I knew if I could just finish the race, we could all become All-Americans. We had two young guys on the relay, and I knew I couldn’t disappoint them.”
It’s suffice to say he didn’t. And he’ll forever be a folk legend of never giving up on a race.
“It was just a really unbelievable performance,” Schwamberger said. “Everyone recognized just how unbelievable an effort that was.”