Originally run as a feature 10-3-2019
While the fall has always been an up and down journey for Graham, full of injuries and setbacks, she says she wouldn't trade it for the world. It's made her stronger.
"I think it has made me a better runner," said Graham, who's won her first four races to start 2019. "A lot of athletes forget that you have to do the extra stuff to stay healthy. I feel more experienced now and know when I need to pull back."
Though she owns a personal best of 17:28 for 5K and has five state titles to her name in track and field, statewide success has eluded her in cross country. She's hoping that signature race comes Saturday at the Great American Cross Country Festival in Cary, North Carolina, against some of the nation's best female runners. Could Graham's first sub-17 effort come here?
To understand her story, we first have to start at the beginning.
Her cross country career started like any other athlete, with success both in middle school and as a freshman in high school. She ultimately ran a PR of 18:53 in her first season of high school cross country and finished 25th at the Group 4A Championships.
And for many athletes, that might represent the peak finish of a career, but for Graham it was just step one.
She trained harder and smarter over the indoor and outdoor campaigns and by August of 2017 she was in the best shape of her life. She toed the line at the Great Meadow Invitational and raced to a 18:22 victory.
Three weeks later, however, things changed.
Shortly after the William & Mary invitational on Sept. 17, she suffered two stress fractures in her foot and before she knew she was on the sidelines for 12 weeks.
It ended her season prematurely.
Her junior year was bound for redemption, as she was back stronger and hungrier and ready to go after a state title. She once again began the campaign on a winning streak, totaling up three more wins. But fate had a different thing in mind.
In her fourth race, the Third Battle Invitational, injury struck again. This time an ankle.
It was defeating enough; not only was it another injury hampering her title hopes, but it once again robbed her of running a fast race on a fast course.
Track season couldn't come quick enough.
Health fully secured soon after the season, Graham was finally ready to prove she was one of the best distance runners in Virginia -- if not the best.
At the Indoor State Championships she proved exactly that, winning the 3,200 meter run and earning a state runner-up in the 1,600. She also put down a monstrous anchor leg performance to hold off Deep Run for another state title in the 4x800m relay.
The outdoor season was even better.
She added three more state titles, including new PRs of 4:50 and 10:29 for the 1,600m and 3,200m.
So 2019 arrives.
And Graham is finally healthy. Now with her third high school coach in as many years, she says she's ready for the best season possible.
John Stegmeier, however, is not a new face, as he led her through middle school and summer XC training.
Thus far, she's had four finishes under 18 minutes. Her personal record came last week at the Octoberfest Invitational, where she ran a course record of 17:28 in near perfect course conditions.
It all leads to Great American, where Graham will get a chance to run on a fast course, in the best shape of her life, against some of the country's best girls runners.
Picture the silence of injury. Of waiting on the sidelines. Of watching your teammates and team perform. Of being a runner that has trained for three years, but not once having a chance to run fast.
That's what Graham has endured.
And she's out to prove on Saturday she's better for it.
Great American's WakeMed course could spell for the perfect race.