Grace Louis shows versatility as two-sport athlete

Grace Louis reflects on her NIU career and the journey from soccer to track

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Senior distance runner Grace Louis races in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Redbird Invite on April 2 in Normal, Illinois. Louis recorded her highest finish at the event after crossing the finish line in 11:40.02 to claim second place. (Courtesy of NIU Athletics)

By Skyler Kisellus, Sports Reporter

Senior and former redshirt Grace Louis has overcome obstacles, literally and figuratively, during her past six years in DeKalb as the most recent student-athlete to play more than one sport at NIU.

Louis was NIU’s lone multi-sport student-athlete during the 2021-2022 season. She wrapped up her tenure with the women’s soccer program in fall 2021. Louis spent this past spring season running various events for the track and field team.

Shaking off the dust

“It’s an awesome opportunity that I’m really grateful for and it wasn’t something I ever expected when I left high school,” Louis said.

Louis said that she had focused on getting recruited for soccer coming out of high school though she made visits to colleges interested in recruiting her for track.

“I was pretty sure I was going to close that chapter of my life,” Louis said. “Part of me didn’t want to open that chapter up in college. I felt like I had completed what I wanted to do with track in high school.”

An opportunity to run track in college presented itself to Louis in the final stages of her soccer career.

“This year, I was like, ‘maybe I can do this. Maybe I wasn’t done yet,’” Louis said. “I gave myself the chance to try (track). I’m really thankful that I did because I love it.”

A long way from Cincinnati

Redshirt senior midfielder Grace Louis winds up for a kick during a regular season game against the University at Buffalo Bulls on Oct. 17, 2021, at the NIU Soccer and Track & Field Complex in DeKalb, Illinois. Louis scored the first and only goal of her career during the 54th minute of the game, resulting in a 1-1 tie on Senior Day. (Courtesy of Grace Louis)

Louis came to NIU from her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio. She attended Sycamore High School in the northeast suburbs of the city.

“It’s actually super weird because my high school is Sycamore,” Louis said. “I got off the exit and was like, ‘oh my gosh, I just passed a high school named Sycamore.’”

Louis was a tri-sport athlete at Sycamore High School. She played soccer, basketball and ran track for the Aviators. Louis played as an attacking midfielder and was a four-year letterwinner for their soccer team.

She also spent three seasons playing club soccer with Cincinnati United Premier, leading them to two-straight Capital Area Soccer League Cups.

“I had a little bit of a late recruiting process just based on the club soccer team I was playing for,” Louis said. “The end of my junior year, I started to scramble to find somewhere I wanted to play at. My club coach recommended that I reach out to the Mid-American Conference schools because he thought that that would be a good fit for me based on the type of soccer I played and the level I was at.”

Louis was originally set on playing for Kennesaw State University (Kennesaw, Georgia). A coaching change during her junior year of high school influenced her decision not to attend. She explored options such as Monmouth University (West Long Branch, New Jersey) and attended camps at Miami University-Ohio (Oxford, Ohio).

Being a tri-sport athlete, Louis also received offers from schools seeking her talents outside of soccer. She said that she received offers from various schools in Kentucky to compete in track. Louis also weighed the option of playing all three sports at Hanover College, a Division III school in Hanover, Indiana.

She later decided that she wanted to compete in Division I and focus on one sport, which ultimately led her to the decision to join the Huskies’ 2016 recruiting class.

Louis double-dips in NIU athletics

The fall 2021 season was Louis’ final season as a member of NIU’s women’s soccer team. She started 29 of 56 games played over the course of six seasons with the Huskies. Louis recorded 2,764 minutes of playing time and scored one goal during her career.

She exhausted her four years of NCAA eligibility as well as the additional years granted for redshirts and the COVID-19 pandemic by the end of women’s soccer’s 5-12-2 season in 2021.

Louis discovered the opportunity to compete on NIU’s track and field team through her roommate, graduate student and distance runner Sara Atkins.

“She was kind of talking to me about some of what was happening with their team and how they were kind of low on numbers,” Louis said. “We both had the idea of maybe talking to the coach to see if I could run again.”

Pullquote Photo

(Louis) brings a lot of energy to our team. I think that’s been a huge plus for us.”

— Distance coach Jamie Moreno

That is exactly what happened. Distance coach Jamie Moreno approached Louis after a soccer practice in late November of 2021.

“I saw Grace out on the soccer field kicking the ball around,” Moreno said. “I just went over and introduced myself. I told her to come by the office sometime. She came by a few days later and we met and sat down and talked about it and stuff and the rest is history.”

Louis initially expressed skepticism about her ability to perform after not having competed in a track and field event since her senior year of high school in 2015.

“We weren’t sure how it would go because I haven’t run track for six years,” Louis said. “I didn’t know if I would be able to run the times I used to be able to. (Moreno) gave me the chance and then I took advantage of it.”

A short and sweet transition

Louis will only be able to spend one season with track and field. Current NCAA regulations permit student athletes at least four years of eligibility in their sport, with the exception of redshirts and COVID-19, and one year in a different sport.

The process to bring Louis onto the track and field team was a very simple one, as explained by director of track and field Connie Teaberry.

“All of her information and everything had already been completed because of soccer,” Teaberry said. “We just have to give it to compliance and then they add her to the roster. It was (a) great addition to the roster.”

Pullquote Photo

This year, I was like, ‘maybe I can do this. Maybe I wasn’t done yet.’”

— Senior distance runner Grace Louis

Louis’ status as a multi-sport athlete meant that Teaberry and Moreno needed to exercise caution when working with Louis.

“Coaches are very hesitant to have their athletes that they’re paying for do another sport in the spring,” Teaberry said. “If they get hurt, and when they start their fall training up again, they may not be ready or available. We just got to make sure we’re extremely careful with those athletes so that they get stronger and they’re prepared to go when their scholarship sport comes around.”

A shining light in track and field

In her short time with the team, Louis’ personality has stood out to Moreno.

“Grace is one of those people that is positive like 99.9% of the time,” Moreno said. “(She’s) extremely energetic and chipper and happy and stuff. She brings a lot of energy to our team. I think that’s been a huge plus for us.”

Moreno further explained that Louis’ ability to jump into track and field was aided by her past soccer experience, noting the similar physical demands of the sports.

Teaberry also praised Louis’ energetic personality and the impact it has on her teammates.

“(Grace) brings light to everyone that’s around her,” Teaberry said. “You see her the first thing, she’s the first one to speak the ‘good morning. How is your day?’ Carrying that over into her athletic ability makes for a very successful athlete.”

A challenge harder than soccer

Louis serves as a distance runner for the track and field team. She is one of two Huskies who competes in the 3,000-meter steeplechase along with junior middle distance runner Brooke Lytle.

The steeplechase is an obstacle race that spans 3,000 meters, or roughly 1.86 miles. The event consists of five barriers every lap with one being a jump into water. The race lasts seven-and-a-half laps.

“It was much harder than I thought it was going to be,” Louis said. “My first race with it, I just had to have fun with it. I had never done a water barrier jump until I was in the race. There was a couple of them that went really bad and I just had to laugh at myself.”

Louis competed in four steeplechase races during the course of the outdoor competition schedule. Her personal best time in the event came at the Jim Duncan Invitational on April 15. Louis finished the race in 11:27.01 to take home third place. Louis’ highest finish was earned during the Redbird Invite on April 2. She finished as the runner-up with a time of 11:40.02.

“(The steeplechase) is one of the most challenging, physical things I have ever done,” Louis said. “Probably the hardest race I’ve ever ran. Definitely probably harder than soccer games but I like it because it’s a really cool event for me.”

The Cincinnati native was also sent to compete in the 1,500-meter run during one instance at the Illini Classic on April 8-9. Louis clocked in at 4:55.79 to come in 39th place.

The indoor season gave Louis the chance to compete in multiple events. She competed individually in the mile run and the 800-meter run. Louis also contributed as a leg once in the 4×400-meter relay and twice in the distance medley relay.

Persevering through injury setbacks

The journey of athletic competition at NIU wasn’t an easy one for Louis. Back-to-back injuries in consecutive seasons kept her off the field for about two seasons.

Louis sustained a foot injury during her senior season in 2019, leading her to take a redshirt for that year. She returned to action during the exhibition series leading up to the COVID-shortened spring 2021 season. She sustained a serious eye injury in the first exhibition game that resulted in a partial loss of vision in her right eye. It affected her bottom vision and peripheral vision.

“I got hit in the eye, went to the hospital and realized that my vitreous had detached from the back of my eye,” Louis said. “I had a bunch of bleeding inside of it and had something called a hyphema.”

A hyphema is an instance where blood collects inside the front of the eye, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. One most commonly occurs after an injury involving a tear of the iris or pupil.

Louis said there are days where she still gets frustrated with her eyesight due to accidentally running into things while on foot and experiencing difficulties driving.

The injury forced her to contemplate her future in soccer after losing part of her vision. Louis said wasn’t sure if she would be able to be the same player she was before. She was unable to work out for a month afterward and forced to watch the season play out from the sidelines.

“It took a really big toll on me,” Louis said. I wasn’t sure that I was going to be able to (return to soccer) but I gave myself the chance. I’m really happy that I did because it went well. Once I learned that I can do that, that’s what inspired me to also do track.”

Louis’ next chapter

The 3,000-meter steeplechase event during the second day of the MAC Outdoor Championship on May 13 was Louis’ final time sporting the red and black. She finished her final race as a Huskie in 11:53.01, taking 19th place.

With her single season in track and field now in the books, Louis’ athletic career at NIU has drawn to a close. She plans to run unattached in the upcoming cross country season and the next track and field season.

Louis completed her bachelor’s degree in health and human sciences with an emphasis on physical therapy in 2020. She has expressed interest in becoming a professor after college and focusing on conducting research on mental health for student athletes.

“I really want to be able to stay connected to athletics but I also really enjoy learning,” Louis said. “It’s kind of a good fit for me because it combines my love of sports and learning and also my passion for mental health.”

Louis is looking to pursue a Ph.D. in kinesiology and physical education with a specialization in sports psychology. She received her acceptance into NIU’s Ph.D. program Friday.

This story was updated May 20 at 11:30 a.m. to include a mention of Louis’ acceptance into NIU’s Ph.D. program.