In the first cross country race Joel Norras ever ran, he took a hard tumble.
“I felt like a fool,” the USC Beaufort senior recalled. “I was like, ‘How did that just happen? Does that happen often to people, tripping in races on (tree) roots? Do I get up and keep going?’
“I just got up and kept going and finished the race.”
It turned out to be something of a harbinger for Norras’ running career. Diagnosed with a brain tumor at age 13, mild nerve damage left him unable to quite regain all of his motor skills. As a result, he stumbles more than one would expect to see from a college runner.
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“If I trip, I trip,” he says nonchalantly. He gets up and finishes the race.
Said fellow senior Tyler Durst: “Joel persists, no matter what adversity he has to overcome. So if I’m having a bad day, it’s really nothing in comparison.”
Last weekend, Norras was honored by the Sun Conference with its Champions of Character Award for men’s track and field.
The award is part of the NAIA’s initiative by the same name, recognizing the “true spirit of competition” through core values of integrity, respect, responsibility, sportsmanship and servant leadership.
Friday brought a finish line of another sort, too, graduating with a degree in hospitality management. Academically ineligible to compete when he first arrived at USCB, Norras has spent the past two years with the highest grade-point average (3.44) on the Sand Sharks’ roster.
“He’s just one tough cookie who persevered and plowed through,” said Larry Kimball, USCB’s longtime cross country coach. “Four years later, you can (look back and) see the maturation process as he went along.”
In a different sort of team structure, Norras might be thought of as a role player. The Savannah native wasn’t part of the parade that saw USCB athletes rewrite school records 43 times in a season that brought their first conference titles.
Even so, he’s a contributor. A seventh-place finish in the 10,000 meters scored points at last weekend’s conference meet. And who knows how many teammates’ points and records might carry a hint of Norras’ influence.
“He never made an excuse for anything,” said Betsy Douglas, USCB’s most decorated runner. “It’s really easy to come up with excuses. But when someone is going through something and they don’t come up with an excuse — you should really think about what you’re going to say.”
Norras, for his part, tends to shrug all that off.
“I just do what has to be done to get the job done,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a big deal.”
Norras played basketball and baseball as a youth, though for some reason he never could get the hang of throwing a baseball. It wasn’t until he was 13 that they found out why.
Doctors found two cysts surrounding a brain tumor, hampering his right-side motor skills. Three operations followed in the next four months, culminating in a 13-hour procedure to remove the tumor.
Though the affliction thankfully didn’t affect his cognitive function, it did leave him with a limp that still persists. He pursued golf in the recovery process, but would find himself easily frustrated.
“Golf’s way more mental,” he said.
He took up running for exercise during his junior year at St. Andrew’s School, soon discovering he had a connection with cross country coach Daniel Batten.
“He also had a brain tumor when he was around my age,” Norras said. “He had two or three, but they didn’t mess up his body like mine did. He wrestled all through high school and ran cross country just to stay in shape for wrestling. So that was a weird connection we had.”
There was another connection, too, that would prove valuable. When poor grades left Norras with limited college options, it was Batten who introduced him to Kimball.
“He told me a little bit of his story, but not a lot,” Kimball said. “But you could tell he had that presence.”
Submitting his paperwork, the NAIA ruled him ineligible as a freshman. Norras asked if he could still train with the team.
“By that time, I’d already made friends with people on the team,” Norras said. “I might as well (stay). It’s fun.”
Over four years, Norras has risen to become a team captain and become an integral part of the team’s fabric. “Really, part of the glue,” Kimball said.
“He tolds people accountable, and I think that’s his biggest attribute,” Kimball said.
Durst recalls more than one occasion when Norras has been the one to keep a teammate on the proper path.
“If there’s a bad idea that somebody comes up with,” Durst said, “Joel will let you know. Joel is not afraid to let you know that you’re doing something dumb.”
As for the trips and falls, some may have been exaggerated over time. Norras acknowledges there was one race when he went down three times in the space of a mile, and he does take a spill more often than other runners.
“When I get to a certain speed,” he said, “sometimes my right leg likes to react properly and sometimes it doesn’t.”
That said, the limp almost disappears when he runs. And that three-falls-in-a-mile experience showed him something.
“It gave me an adrenaline boost,” he said, “and I ended up running faster after I got up. After that race, I kind of realized that falling almost helps me.”
The Sand Sharks could always count on this: Norras finishes the race. Always has.