For some reason, Malia Gray said that she just always liked to run. Maybe like the song that made Bruce Springsteen an international icon rather than just a Jersey Shore legend, Gray was just born that way.
“I always liked to sprint,” Gray said. “I always wanted to run fast.”
But there wasn’t any competition until Gray entered eighth grade at P.S. 5 Dr. Michael Conti School in downtown Jersey City. She won her first track medal then.
“But before then, I just liked to sprint and race people for fun,” Gray said. “I was racing the wrong people.”
When the time came for Gray to enroll in high school, she just happened to attend the school with the best and most prestigious track and field program in the area – St. Dominic Academy.
“I remember seeing her at an open house,” said John Nagel, the architect of nearly 40 years of SDA track dominance. “She was there with her grandmother and I remember saying to myself that she was a potential runner, but I don’t remember anything specific about her. When she came out for the team, it was clear that she had ability.”
Once a Blue Devil, the time came for Nagel to try to nurture that ability – and for Gray to realize the ability and take it very seriously.
“Running cross country was very different,” Gray said. “I didn’t know anything about it and in fact, I hated it. When I started indoor, I didn’t know anything about field events, like doing hurdles and jumps. I just knew running. At first, it was scary, because I didn’t understand the concept. Once I got the hang of it, it started to become fun.”
But if you’re going to become a part of the rich and storied Blue Devil tradition, you better be ready to work at it. Gray simply was not ready.
“There were several recurrences of her immaturity,” Nagel said.
“I didn’t take it seriously,” Gray said. “I didn’t try my best. I was always making excuses. It was too hot. I was too tired.”
It helped that there was already a budding legend on the SDA track team named Camille Bertholon.
“My freshman and sophomore year, Camille was the one who tried to get me to practice,” Gray said. “I just didn’t take it seriously. Camille would remind me by saying, ‘You have to work harder because you’re the next role model for the next group coming in.’ I looked to her as being the role model I needed. She’s as strong of a runner and a person that I know. I knew I was going to take it more seriously.”
With that, a light went off above Gray’s head.
“I guess it got to the point where she had to say, ‘I’m going to do what they’re doing or not do it at all,’” Nagel said. “Malia fought through it. She was energized. She made the commitment to do things properly and use the gifts that she has.”
Throughout her junior year, Gray has been nothing short of steady and spectacular for the Blue Devils.
“Something just clicked with her,” Nagel said.
Gray had a fine indoor season, culminating in winning the 55-meter hurdle and high jump gold medals at the NJSIAA Non-Public B state championships, helping the Blue Devils claim the team title.
It continued on throughout the outdoor track campaign, with Gray claiming the Hudson County Track Coaches Association gold medal in the 100-meter hurdles.
Last Friday and Saturday, at the NJSIAA Non-Public B state championships at Madison High School, Gray enjoyed her finest moment to date in track and field.
Gray won three gold medals – winning the high jump (five feet), the 100-meter hurdles in 15.42 seconds and the 200-meter dash in 26.35 seconds. She was also second in the long jump with a leap of 16 feet, 5 and ¼ inches. It meant that Gray accumulated 38 of the SDA 77 total team points that enabled the Blue Devils to finish third overall.
For her efforts, Gray has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
“There were a lot of people who said, ‘No, I couldn’t do it,’” Gray said. “And honestly, I never thought I’d go as far as I have with it. I feel blessed. Not everyone gets this opportunity. I’m very grateful. It’s a blessing to be able to do all that.”
“She’s been largely very good,” said Nagel, who does not like to speak in superlatives. “She does an awful lot for us. She is now sharing the spotlight [with standout Bertholon]. No doubt, the evolution has been fun to watch. She brings a lot to the table.”
And now, the reluctant track star is now getting looked at by some major college programs like Boston University, Rutgers and Seton Hall. Mind you, she’s only a junior. The transformation is far from complete. More schools will become aware as time goes by.
It helps that Gray owns a 3.2 grade point average, a mark that would have been higher if Gray took that part of her life seriously as well.
“It all comes with maturity,” Gray said. “I still need the grades. I still need to improve my times.”
Gray is also an accomplished violinist and is a member of the Greater Newark Youth Orchestra that has already performed at the NJPAC and yes, even Carnegie Hall. Gray still takes violin lessons weekly.
“I try my hardest,” Gray said of everything.
“She’s definitely going places,” Nagel said. “She’s using the gifts she has. She’s running now instead of running away from me. She does an awful lot.”
Gray also shares her unique first name with a more famous First Daughter, namely Malia Obama.
“It was a shocker when I found out that we shared names,” Malia Gray said. “But she had it first. She’s older by one year. But it’s pretty wild.” – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.