“The day of tryouts, I had my softball mitt in hand and a friend stopped me on my way to the field and said, ‘You’re not trying out for softball, you’re trying out for track” — Jen Rockwell-Grossarth
With a 400-meter hurdling time in range of Olympic-qualifying numbers, Tooele County native Jen Rockwell-Grossarth just might find herself hurdling in the world’s most prestigious running competition. And yet, 15 years ago at the beginning of her running career, she had to be persuaded to join the track team.
She still laughs when she thinks back to the day as a high school freshman she sauntered in the direction of the Tooele High School softball diamond thinking she’d do as others in her family had done and try out for the softball team instead.
“The day of tryouts I had my softball mitt in hand and a friend stopped me on my way to the field and said, ‘You’re not trying out for softball, you’re trying out for track,’” Rockwell-Grossarth said.
This coaxing marked the beginning of what is now a professional career for Rockwell-Grossarth.
“I learned that I enjoyed running more than I enjoyed playing softball,” she said.
The camaraderie she experienced led her to run all four years in high school, all the while competing with the school’s swim team during the winter offseason. This all-around athleticism combined with her first- and second-place state medals caught the eye of a Brigham Young University track and field coach who offered her a scholarship.
“He thought he could develop me,” Rockwell-Grossarth said.
Previous to running at the collegiate level, Rockwell-Grossarth hadn’t attempted the hurdles and instead had dabbled in almost all other distances of track running. But her BYU coach had a keen eye and recommended Rockwell-Grossarth try the 400-meter hurdles.
“I wasn’t confident going over a barrier as fast as I could,” she said, recounting those early attempts.
A physically demanding race, the 400-meter hurdles require intense training to get the endurance, speed and technique needed to be competitive.
“A lot of people think hurdling is just jumping over the hurdles, but if you are doing it correctly it’s really like an exaggerated “It’s taken a lot of years for me to get to the point.”
In training, hurdlers are bound to hit a few hurdles. While no penalty is associated with knocking one over, some apprehension can be.
“If you don’t go back over it soon then you get this fear,” Rockwell-Grossarth said. “If you hit a hurdle you might be a little hesitant and clear them a little higher than before, but you do get back into that relaxed comfortable mode. I was in a car accident once, and I was only going 20 miles per hour. After, I felt really panicky to drive. I’m comfortable now. Hurdles is just like that.”
The transition to hurdles meant a lot of weightlifting and an increased number of hours on the track — a fete that ultimately led Rockwell-Grossarth to nationals during her senior year. It also led her to the alter.
Rockwell-Grossarth met and married her husband Kyle, a men’s track and field coach at BYU, during her time with the university. Graduation left her with the desire to still run competitively, but with no attachment to any club or team or official sponsor — other than the generosity of family members.
“We decided that Kyle would be my coach on the track and my husband at home,” Rockwell-Grossarth said.
With his help, Rockwell-Grossarth made the U.S. women’s indoor 4 by 4 relay team and competed in the Indoor World Championship in Spain in 2008. In 2010, she finished fourth in the 400-meter hurdles at the national championship, and throughout all of her competitions during college and post she ran in the Olympic trials. Through it all, the realization came that to continue competing she needed to do it in Europe.
“I fall in the cracks between the superstars in the states,” Rockwell-Grossarth said. “I’m not as well known as they are and I don’t have the connections that they do. In Europe there is more opportunity to make their teams.”
With family roots in Italy, Rockwell-Grossarth began the daunting process of obtaining dual citizenship, allowing her to compete with the Italian National Team. Finally, at the beginning of this year her petition was granted, making her a full-fledged Italian citizen.
“My grandfather was from Italy,” Rockwell-Grossarth said. “When he was 16 he had this dream to move to the states and make something of himself. My grandpa’s dreams brought him to Utah and my dreams have taken me back to Italy.”
Based in Orem with her husband and two daughters — 8-year-old MaKayla and 3-year-old Cambree — Rockwell-Grossarth travels to Italy about two weeks of every month during the spring and for a bulk of the summer. She stays in a dorm at the Olympic training center, where all of her basic needs are provided for. Her husband is able to visit occasionally, but the girls have yet to experience Europe. Perhaps when they are older, Rockwell-Grossarth said.
“There is no way we could do this without our family members’ support,” Rockwell-Grossarth said, adding that her parents and Phoenix-based in-laws, who like to flee the hot summer weather of their hometown, play mom to her girls when she is abroad competing and training.
Since first-ever competing in hurdles Rockwell-Grossarth has been able speed up her time to be within reach of competing in the 2016 Brazil Summer Olympics.
“The world record is a 52-second range,” Rockwell-Grossarth said. “55.5 is my record.”
One might be quick to think that a 2.5 second gap between the two times would be simple to narrow, but Rockwell-Grossarth said that’s easier said than done.
“When you’re watching the race you see a huge gap, but then when you look at the time you say ‘gosh, that’s only a few seconds,’” she said, adding that it can take years of training to knock seconds off your time.
“When I first ran the 400-meter hurdles I did it in 64 seconds,” Rockwell-Grossarth said. “I remember when I broke 60 seconds in college. Now I’m at 55.7, so I’m close to reaching my personal best again.”
Her time landed her 19th place in the World Championship this year, ranking her in the top 30 overall.
“I’m not too sad about that,” Rockwell-Grossarth said. “But, I do have goals about moving up that list. When I graduated from college I wanted to keep running. I think ever since then I’ve looked at it as one year at a time. I’ve tried not to look down the road too far ahead. I’ve been able to improve. I’ve felt progress in what I feel like in between running the hurdles. I count the number of steps in between the hurdles, and now I don’t have as many steps.”
Rockwell-Grossarth, now 30, said although she’d been running for more than a decade she feels she’s just entered her prime and can’t wait to see what the future brings.
“I wish I felt this way in college,” Rockwell-Grossarth said. “I wasn’t at my peak back then. I wouldn’t trade where I am now to have that in college. If I was at my peak in college I’d be done running now.”