Santa Barbara, Calif- If you were at the 2013 Big West Track and Field Championships you felt the presence of the Gaucho sprinters and hurdlers. One of those athletes, Grace Esslinger was recently given the 2013 Big West Sportsmanship Award. Esslinger joins a group of eight other female athletes who represent each institution in the Big West. According to the Big West:
Each school's Student Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) voted for a male and female representative who best displayed Sportsmanship during the 2013 calendar year. Sportsmanship, as defined by the SAAC Council, is "conduct or practice of fairness, courtesy, and honor while participating in sports; the ethos carried not only in victory but also in the face of defeat."
Esslinger came to the Gauchos via Dana Hills High School. She initially trained as a heptathlete before switching her focus to individual events after continually battling injuries. She found success in the javelin, scoring in three different Big West Championship meets. But it wasn't until her senior year before she found her stride.
In 2013, Esslinger went on a tear through the Big West, scoring in five events at the Championship while setting 3 UCSB school records in the process. Esslinger dropped an 11.80 100m in the Big West prelims to advance to the final where she would go on to place 7th. Running in the 100m hurdles, she once again found a PR in the prelims, running 13.95 to earn a lane in the final where she would go on to claim 6th place. She found her first podium after guiding the Gauchos 4 x 100m relay to a third place showing and a new school record in 45.73. But perhaps Esslinger's finest performance came in an event she wasn't even scheduled to compete in.
The Gauchos had two solid legs ready to roll for the 4 x 400m relay, Big West Champions Jennifer Carey and Amanda Rodriguez. Carey had stunned the field earlier in the day by running 52.29 in the open 400m, a time which qualified her for the IAAF World Championships later that summer, representing Ireland. Rodriguez capped a stellar year by winning the Big West 400m hurdle final in a new school record of 58.32. The problem was the Gauchos didn't have any other 400m options at their disposal.
Before the championship meet, coaches Travis Anderson and Cody Fleming had discussed the possibility of Grace Esslinger and freshman heptathlete Tori Usgaard being options for the relay. Knowing they would be fried after competing in a combined 10 events + prelims, they would have to rely on their strength and grit to get through the relay.
When presented with the option to run on the relay, Esslinger didn't hesistate to accept the challenge.
After the 100m final she found some shade under the south end of the track facility and enjoyed a peaceful break before the 5,000m races started, closing the meet out before the 4 x 400m relays would take center stage.
Using Esslinger's experience in the blocks, Coach Anderson had her take the race out, running the first leg. This was the first time in 3 years Esslinger would run a 400m race, so the only option was to take it out. And she responded. At the first exchange, the Gauchos were neck and neck with UC Davis. Esslinger would run a 55.8 split. The Gauchos went on to take second with a time of 3:39.46. A new school record, qualifying them for the NCAA First Round Meet.
Two weeks later in Austin, with fresh legs, the group of Esslinger, Carey, Usgaard and Rodriguez would once again eclipse their record running a time of 3:38.86. Grace is currently pursuing graduate school options, living in Santa Barbara.