GREENTOWN — It was a goal 10 years in the making.

Earlier this year, Gracie McClain, a 17-year-old Eastern High School senior, qualified to compete in a national Irish dancing competition.

In the months leading up to her performance in July, she practiced every day dancing her treble jig and slip jig in the wooden loft overlooking the inside of her family’s barn.

Gracie was in the best shape she’d ever been in. She was confident. She was ready.

But she never expected that a sudden splitting headache, blurred vision and speech loss would bring her plans to an abrupt halt just one week before she was set to dance on the national stage.

“It’s not something I would have ever imagined happening that day,” Gracie said. “I did not wake up and think, ‘Today it all ends.’”

‘THE SKY’S THE LIMIT’

It was St. Patrick’s Day, and Eastern Elementary had invited dancers from the Richens/Timm Academy of Irish dance to perform for the students.

Gracie was in the first grade and watched with wonder as the dancers toe-walked, clicked, twisted, slid and kicked across the floor. She had never seen anything like it. When she went back to class, she took a flyer for the Irish dancing school and told her mom she wanted to try it.

“I just liked how energetic they were,” Gracie said. “Ever since I was little, I’ve loved music and dancing. Irish dancing just caught my eye and I thought maybe it’s something I’d want to do.”

Gracie started her first class with the dance academy at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Tipton. After the first practice, she was hooked. She liked that she could practice and compete year-round, as opposed to doing a seasonal sport that only lasted a few months. Plus, it was just something different to do.

“It’s not something you hear often, especially in Greentown, Indiana,” Gracie said. “People are usually like, ‘I run, I play tennis, I play volleyball.’ I’m like, ‘I Irish dance.’”

Liz Jones, who started the Irish dance school in Tipton and has taught Gracie since first grade, said Gracie always had natural ability and talent when it comes to Irish dancing. But what sets her apart is her work ethic.

“Irish dancing takes a lot of self-responsibility and working on your own and being goal-oriented,” Jones said. “And that’s something I’ve never had to push her to do. She’s incredibly self-motivated, which is lovely for me. I would say she’s in the top 10% of kids her age. The sky’s the limit.”

And Gracie only got better the more she practiced. In middle school, she went from practicing 20 minutes a few days a week to at least an hour almost every day. Soon, she was consistently ranking higher in competitions.

Eastern senior Gracie McClain, 17, is a competitive Irish dancer.

“I like that how, in order to get better, I have to work at it, and I like being able to work hard at things to get better,” Gracie said. “Now here I am, it’s my thing, and I do it every day. It’s become a big part of my life.”

On most afternoons, Gracie could be found in the loft of her family’s barn, where the sound of Irish music and the clicking of her hard shoes hitting the wooden floor echoed around the tractors and farm equipment.

Through all the hours of practicing and performing, her drive to qualify for the national Irish dancing competition only became stronger.

“There’s a point in time for every kid when it just really clicks,” Jones said. “They know they’re good at it and they’re going to go for it. I always knew she could do it. It was meant to happen.”

And earlier this year, after a decade of tireless work, it did happen — but in an unconventional way. Due to the pandemic, dancers in February were required to submit their routine online for the regional competition rather than perform live.

After judges reviewed her video, she got the news that she qualified for her first-ever trip to the national competition in Arizona in July.

“When it happened, I was so emotional,” Gracie said. “I’d been doing it for 10 years. It’s my main goal and I’d been working so hard, and it finally happened. It really just made me feel good about working hard and where it can get you.”

‘TODAY IT ALL ENDS’

Soon, there were just seven days left until all the practicing in the barn loft culminated on the dance stage in Arizona. That day, Gracie had just finished her summer class and was hanging out with a friend, eating ice cream in the car outside of Culver’s.

Suddenly, something felt off. Her head felt weird. She started to feel dizzy. The vision in her left eye turned blurry. Gracie tried to tell her friend how she felt, only to discover she couldn’t speak.

“I was trying to talk and just nothing was coming out,” Gracie said. “I knew what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t say it. I was like, ‘Why is this happening?’ I know how to say these words and I couldn’t get them out.”

All she could do was cry as she held her hand up to her left eye. Her friend sped back to Gracie’s parents in Greentown. When they arrived, her mom, Angela, was panicked.

“I opened her car door and she’s just sitting there with this look of complete fear on her face,” Angela said. “It was very scary. You see this girl who’s got it all together and it’s like, ‘What is happening?’”

By that time, Gracie had improved a bit. Her words began coming back to her, although she still had a bad headache. They took her to the hospital, wondering if she might be experiencing a severe migraine.

On the car ride to the hospital, Gracie held her mom’s hand, feeling scared as she read the road signs to see if she could still read.

At the hospital, doctors ran a CAT scan and found something small on her brain. The next morning after an MRI, Gracie’s neurologist informed her that she had suffered a minor stroke.

“I just started bawling,” Gracie said. “Even though I was fine at that moment, I was like, ‘I can’t believe that had just happened to me.’ I’m already someone that worries a lot and I have a lot of anxiety about things, so I was so upset. I didn’t even know what to say, how to handle that.”

Gracie said although the doctors aren’t positive of the cause of the stroke, they think it likely occurred due to a rare side effect of prescription acne medication Gracie was taking.

Gracie stayed in the hospital one more night before she was released. It was the day before she was meant to board the flight to Arizona for her national Irish dance competition.

Her doctor advised her not to go and to take a break from dancing as a precaution, so she did.

It was a rough next few days. Fear crept into Gracie’s mind. She had been issued a clean bill of health, but even so, she worried if a stroke was coming on with every headache. Her parents tried distracting her, tried getting her out of the house, but it was hard keeping her anxiety at bay.

“For a month and a half after, I was timid, scared, thinking about it constantly, like, ‘What if something happens again?’” Gracie said. “I was very paranoid. Anytime I had a headache or pain anywhere else, I thought ‘What if this is something?’”

It was nearly a month before Gracie danced again.

‘ANY DAY COULD BE YOUR LAST’

For dance teacher Jones, watching and instructing Gracie as she got back into the swing of things was scary — but wondrous at the same time.

“We all wanted to handle her with care for a long time,” she said.

Gracie said she was happy to be back doing what she loved, but it was still hard knowing the stroke had robbed her of the chance to compete at nationals.

“I was glad, but also upset because I felt like I had missed out on something,” she said. “I felt like I had lost my fitness that I had worked toward when I couldn’t go to nationals. It took me a while to get back in my groove of dancing every day just because some days, I would be really upset or worried and didn’t think I could do it.”

Although Gracie still has lingering thoughts about the mental, physical and emotional distress she went through this past summer, she said she feels good. She’s reached a point where she can put it behind her, overcome it and not let anxiety control her life.

And she has. On Friday, after working to build back her stamina and fitness, Gracie performed at her first Irish dance competition since the stroke. Her goal to compete in the national Irish dance competition next summer is back on the table.

But as much as Gracie wishes the stroke never happened, it taught her something. She said in a weird way, the experience gave her a different mindset that helps her cope with any kind of stress. That’s allowed her to enjoy her life even more.

“After the stroke, it made me realize that any day could be your last day,” Gracie said. “What if tomorrow is my last day and I don’t know it? What if something happens to me? I’m going to regret worrying about or not doing something because of my anxiety. I can’t let it bother me. I’m not going to let it affect how I’m living my life.”

Kelly Lafferty Gerber can be reached at 765-454-8597, by email at kelly.lafferty@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @KLaffGerber.

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