Anna Willard Grenier reacts after winning the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase final at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore. The Greenwood native, set an American record with a time of 9:27.59.
Anna Willard Grenier has spent the past 15 years on the move.
She’s been moving fast around tracks across the world, and she’s been moving from one place to another.
“Basically, I moved every six months for a decade,” Grenier said earlier this week.
The Telstar Regional High School graduate has finally settled down in one place — in Lowell, Massachusetts — with her husband of one year, Bob Grenier. The couple lives in a recently renovated home with their two dogs, Lucca and Kilo.
“It’s really nice,” Grenier said, “to not have to keep moving all over the place, and making something my own.”
Grenier, 33, will be inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday. Finding out about the honor earlier this year has caused her to look back on her running career, which took her from a small-town farm in Maine to the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, and beyond.
“It definitely makes you reflect, I think, more on the whole career, and kind of where I started, realizing how far I came from such a small town,” Grenier said.
“It is pretty cool now, looking back on it. I don’t think I ever really reflected that much or felt all that lucky when I was younger, but I think now, looking back on it, a lot stars had to align for me to get where I was.”
She grew up as Anna Willard in Greenwood, the daughter of Al and Nancy, where she helped her dad work on the family’s hay farm.
She always enjoyed running, and, being competitive, liked to race — other kids and Al.
“I remember challenging my dad to a race one time while we were out for a walk,” Grenier said. “And then he tore his hamstring.”
Grenier is quick to laugh and describes herself as “very up-front, I kind of say whatever I think.” So it’s fitting that she shoots so straight when discussing why she chose to run in high school.
Telstar’s sports options for girls were limited to cross country and field hockey in the fall and softball and track and field in the spring (she played basketball during the winters). She didn’t want to play softball, and she wasn’t fond of the field hockey uniforms.
“I was not about to wear a skirt. I thought it was dumb. So I did cross country instead,” Grenier said. “It just felt, especially at that age, you know, when you’re sort of forming your identity, (wearing a skirt) felt sort of contrary to what you’re supposed to be doing. You know, I’m trying to be a serious athlete, and wearing a skirt while doing that didn’t seem very on par. I think probably now I’d be a little more comfortable with it.”
“I think I always took myself too seriously,” Grenier adds. “That’s just my personality … I think I probably tortured myself at points with how serious I was.”
“I think I’ve relaxed a lot.”
Grenier became a state champion in cross country and in track, winning the 800 and 1,600 (and placing second in the 3,200) her senior season.
Ivy League and beyond
After graduating from Telstar in 2002, Grenier continued her running career at Brown University. In three years, she set school records, won an Ivy League championship and was a two-time All-American.
She also qualified for the U.S. championships, but …
“I couldn’t go,” she said, “because I was a college kid and didn’t have any money, and the school was like, ‘We don’t have a budget for that.’ I’m like, ‘But I qualified for USA’s, that’s huge, like, nobody does.’”
She discovered the steeplechase her junior year, and experienced Craig Lake the following year.
Lake was hired to be Grenier’s coach, and she was “super-intense,” Grenier said.
The coach made Grenier change a lot of things, including her college-kid lifestyle of, Grenier said, “staying up too late, eating crap.”
“She really reined me in a lot, and it paid off big-time,” Grenier said of Lake.
“Had (Lake) not come into play, I don’t think I would have gone to Michigan.”
After graduating from Brown, Grenier then moved onto the University of Michigan for graduate school. Because of an injury at Brown, Grenier still had a year of eligibility left. She put that to good use, and again became an All-American in 2007.
At Michigan, Grenier found support for her athletic endeavors unlike ever before.
“Going from Brown to the University of Michigan was pretty eye-opening,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much they gave their athletes at other schools, because we got nothing at Brown.
“It was a very different atmosphere (at Michigan).”
The professors supported the athletes — and blew Grenier’s mind with emails of encouragement — and there was state-of-the-art training, free gear and massages every other week. Oh, and a huge budget so the team could attend important meets.
“Michigan, it’s just like, the sky’s the limit. It’s pretty cool,” Grenier said.
“I improved dramatically in one year. The team was so good at Michigan that I always had somebody good to push me every day, whereas I was on my own a lot at Brown.”
During her year at Michigan, Grenier won NCAA championships in the 1,500, 5,000 and steeplechase, set a new collegiate record in the steeplechase, and claimed three Big 10 titles.
The following year, she competed at at the 2008 U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, Oregon. There she placed first in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, not only qualifying for the Olympic team, but also setting an American record in the event.
At the Olympics in Beijing, Grenier made the steeplechase final and finished 10th.
“The whole experience was kind of crazy,” Grenier said. “I don’t think I could really understand how big it was until afterwards, because you’re such in a bubble there.”
The Olympics was the high point of her career, right?
“Oh, god, no,” Grenier said.
She was just getting started, and the best was yet to come.
Following the Olympics, she moved from Michigan to California. She joined the Mammoth Track Club and started training under Terrence Mahon, who would become her longtime coach. She also signed a professional sponsorship with Nike.
“That’s when I started to get really good,” Grenier said. “I was very good on the domestic level through 2008, and then in 2009, I kind of got my (stuff) together and became one of the best in the world.
“I had a lot of really big wins in these huge stadiums, in Paris, New York City, Brussels … and it was, like, huge stadiums, thousands of people. It was a very memorable experience to have the crowd screaming — it really carries you all the way through the finish line.”
Grenier ditched the steeplechase, her Olympic event, early in her professional career and focused primarily on the 800 and 1,500.
She was a two-time U.S. outdoor champion (2008, 2010) and a two-time U.S. indoor champ (2008, 2010). She took sixth in the 1,500 at the 2009 world championships, and finished fourth in the 800 at the 2010 world indoor championships.
One last push
Grenier was an alternate for the 2012 Summer Olympics in London in the 1,500. She stayed in Italy and trained, just in case.
“I was kind of waiting to be called because I knew one of the girls was injured,” Grenier said.
The call never came. Grenier did find her way to England — though not London — later that year, moving there to follow Mahon.
It was tough to go from sunny San Diego to a small town in England, and the reserved nature of the people didn’t jibe with that “up-front” personality of hers.
Plus, she was going through some stuff.
“I probably would have been unhappy, no matter what. I was injured, and I was going through a divorce,” Grenier said.
That was near the beginning of a stretch of various injuries that lasted, non-stop, through 2015.
Grenier briefly retired, but it only lasted eight or nine months. Finally feeling healthy, she decided to return and make a push for the 2016 Olympics.
“It was a fun little adventure to see if I could qualify in a new, different way of training, because I was training myself more at that point,” Grenier said.
“But I think I had missed too much time. It takes years to build that sort of fitness. But it was fun.”
Grenier missed qualifying for the U.S. trials by a second. Finally, she was ready to move on to life after racing.
“Since then, I’m pretty much retired,” she said.
“I think doing that last little hurrah last year really helped kind of scratch that last itch, and now I feel content, in terms of what I’ve accomplished. And I think it kind of put it in perspective, like, ‘Holy crap, I’m still in very, very good shape,’ but to get to that level, I think it gave me a little more respect for how much I had accomplished.”
She still runs, but Grenier is now a full-time coach.
Last year, she married Bob Grenier, who has a CrossFit gym in Lowell. She estimates that she does one-third of her coaching there, and the rest as an individual running coach.
After moving to Massachusetts, Grenier said she would make monthly trips to Maine to visit her parents. However, that stopped when Al and Nancy retired to North Carolina last year.
“They still own some land up there, and so eventually, I would love to be able to build a little cabin up there, and be able to go back to Greenwood,” Grenier said.
“I do miss it.”
Greenwood native Anna Willard Grenier goes over the last barrier to win the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., in 2008. She set an American record with a time of 9:27.59.
Anna Willard waves after winning the 1,500-meter run at the 2009 London Grand Prix. Willard, a Telstar Regional High School graduate, will be inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday.Anna Willard, a Greenwood native, will be inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame on Sunday.