Midtown: Sports

Graham enjoys her last race, career at Wakefield

Ariah Graham knew she was going to cry at the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A championships.

Graham, a senior at Wakefield High and the winner of multiple national high school track and field championships, said she expected an emotional ending at the championships in Greensboro. She’ll run with her teammates again in national competition, but May 19 was her last time running for the Wolverines.

Graham has a decorative box in her room where she keeps most of the ribbons and medals that she has won. She has no idea how many there are. A few of the prettiest or the most meaningful are hung round her room. Each one is precious and prized, but after so many wins in so many different competitions, keeping track of what she won indoor or outdoor, in club or in high school, in state or national meets is hard.

Graham has won 11 NCHSAA titles, either individually or as a part of a Wakefield relay team.

“It is sad,” she said before the 4x400 relay. “When I look up after my leg on the 4x400 relay and realize that it is all over, I’m going to cry.”

Graham won the 400 individually in 55.14 seconds for Wakefield on May 19. She also ran on the winning 4x400 relay team with Tiana Patillo, Tyra Lea and freshman Je’May Ward. That quartet set a new state record in 3:47.72.

“That’s our record,” Graham said. “We wanted to get back on top with that record and that’s exactly what we got.”

She tells people that she was born running. Trevor Graham, her father, was one of the nation’s top track coaches, and her mother, Ann, was a college track athlete and is the Wakefield track coach.

Older brother T.J. Graham, a former N.C. State football wide receiver, was an NCHSAA 100- and 200-meter sprint champion and recently signed with the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. Only older sister Lucy didn’t pursue track.

Ariah Graham is the reigning high school national champion in the 400-meter indoor (53.95 seconds), and she ran a leg on the Wakefield girls’ national championship 4x200 (1:36.35) and 4x400 relays (3:43.01).

The winning times are the fastest ever by North Carolina high school athletes, and the 4x200 finish is the second-fastest ever in the U.S.

“We’ve got a lot of good girls,” Graham said. “We work hard.”

The 400 meter, Graham’s specialty, is one of the most demanding races. The race is painful, something Graham handles by confronting the discomfort.

“Before the race, you know you are going to hurt,” she said. “You have to decide that you aren’t going to slow down.”

Ariah has wanted to run for as long as she can remember. Her parents wouldn’t let her compete until she was 10 years old, and she wasn’t a sprinter until her mother entered her in the 400 meter when she was 12.

“I cried the whole way,” she said. “My mother made me run it.”

She has never trained with T.J., but the brother and sister, five years apart, have grown closer in recent years. They have been linked by their success and by their father, who was one of the nation’s top coaches before several of his athletes were connected to performance-enhancing drugs.

Like T.J., Ariah is headed to N.C. State. She looked closely at South Carolina and the University of North Carolina, loved those track programs and those schools, but knew in her heart that she was a Wolfpacker.

But she also wore the Wakefield uniform for the last time on May 19.

Wakefield won the team title that day with 60 points. The Wolverines also won the NCHSAA 2011 winter track, 2011 outdoor track and the 2012 indoor track championships.

In addition, the same girls won the New Balance Outdoors national championship in 2011 while competing as the Junior Striders. Graham added a few more medals to put in her box in her final high school track meet, and, more importantly to her, she ran with her friends at school one last time.