Malia Gray was all of seven years old when she had to face the first challenge of her life – playing the piano. You see, Gray came from a very musical family. Her mother, Suzette, played the clarinet growing up. Her maternal grandmother, Rose Gray, was a big classical music fan. So music was always a big part of the Gray family’s life.
There was only one problem. Young Malia didn’t like playing the piano. And let’s face it. A Steinway is just too big to force feed down a young child’s throat.
“There were too many keys,” Malia Gray said. “It was boring to me.”
So at age 9, Gray’s grandmother bought Malia a violin to learn to play.
“I didn’t know too much about the violin, but there was something about it that I liked right away,” Gray said.
In the early stages, Gray thought she was pretty proficient with the new instrument.
“I thought I did pretty well,” Malia Gray said. “It all depends on your instrument. It’s all learning by numbers. I didn’t know how to read music, so I learned by numbers.”
Eventually, with the help of a patient and persistent violin teacher named Amneris Buscasu, Gray learned to play the violin.
A year later, Gray earned a spot with the prestigious Newark Youth Orchestra, where she still remains an important member.
“I would practice the violin about two hours a day,” Gray said. “I would have to, if I wanted to become good at it. It is the most difficult instrument to learn to play, with all the octaves and such. But I loved it right away.”
Flash forward about five years and the time came for Gray to enter high school. She chose St. Dominic Academy and decided to join SDA’s historic track and field program.
“I knew nothing about track and field at all,” Gray said. “I met with John [Nagel, the school’s long-time track and field coach and athletic director] and he had us run laps around Lincoln Park right away. I didn’t know if I wanted to do that. I was a sprinter. What is this? Running distances wasn’t for me. I only knew about sprinting and running fast.”
But Nagel saw something in Gray.
“I found the things she could do really well,” Nagel said.
As it turned out, Gray could do a lot of things really well.
During her career, Gray entered in some cross country races, but they were not memorable for anyone, especially Gray.
But during indoor and outdoor seasons, Gray became an absolute machine, running all the dashes, doing all the jumps, competing in all the hurdles.
During her career, Gray eventually captured a total of 15 NJSIAA sectional and Group championships and some 11 Hudson County Track Coaches Association titles. She set new Hudson County records in the long jump (18 feet, three ½ inches) and the triple jump (34 feet, 10 inches). She would end up winning NJSIAA Non-Public B North state sectionals in four events this past spring, the 100-meter hurdles, the 200-meter dash, the triple jump and the long jump. Gray won three HCTCA championships this spring as well and finished second in the 200-meters.
Gray was the overall winner in Non-Public B in the long jump and 200-meter dash, making her a two-time NJSIAA state champion this spring.
All totaled, Gray became one of the most decorated track and field athletes in Hudson County history.
Last week, Gray received the award as the 2016-2017 Hudson Reporter Female Athlete of the Year, given to the young lady who is the best athlete in more than one varsity sport.
Gray was presented with the award by Hudson Reporter Co-Publisher David Unger at the school with her family and school officials present.
Gray becomes the fourth SDA athlete to receive the award, joining Cheri Selby (1994-1995, at a time when the Hudson Reporter presented only one award, male or female), Christine Capetola (2004-2005) and Gray’s friend and teammate Camille Bertholon (last year). Gray is the 16th recipient of the newspaper chain’s year-end award for top female athlete.
When Bertholon (who just finished her freshman year competing in track and field at the University of Rhode Island) earned the award last year, Gray knew nothing about it.
“I never thought I would be able to get that award,” Gray said. “It’s incredible and amazing. I definitely hope I started a trend.”
State regulations limit athletes to competing in only four events in each track meet, but Gray could have done more if allowed. For example, Gray cleared 5-2 in the high jump, which would have been good enough to win the Non-Public B North title. She also ran 400-meter legs in the Penn Relays for the Blue Devils.
Gray thinks she learned the high jump faster than she learned the violin.
“I still have the video of me trying to clear the high jump,” Gray said. “I look at that and say, ‘Who was that?’ But I was eventually able to go faster, jump higher, clear the bar higher. It’s hilarious to see that video actually.”
Gray didn’t know she was creating a legacy.
“I was like any other teenager,” Gray said. “I wanted to jump further than I thought I could or run faster. I really didn’t know. You don’t believe you can do anything until you do it. It’s why you do it and why you want to do it more.”
Nagel knows that he’s losing a special athlete.
“She was the standard bearer for the team that won the state Non-Public B championship last winter,” Nagel said. “She performed extremely well when the lights are on. It’s very easy to have expectations of someone. But to do it time and time again when the lights are on is impressive. She’s a performer. She can perform.
Added Nagel, “She’s in the top 10 athletes we’ve ever had, and that’s saying a mouthful.”
Nagel believes that her violin performance has helped Gray as a track athlete.
“Her commitment and her preparation are excellent,” Nagel said. “I’d say that there is similar development between the two. It’s a performance that we’ve come to know. She’s going to leave a legacy. She wore the uniform well.”
Gray has enrolled at Pace University for the fall semester, because that’s where her mother wants her to attend. However, Pace does not have a track team. She has received enticing scholarship offers to attend other schools to compete in track and field, but Suzette Gray is thinking academics first.
“It’s okay,” Gray said. “I don’t know what is going to happen in the future. My mom knows I want to run. What I’ve done makes me want to accomplish so much more.”
Gray will head to Pace and study psychology and hopes to become a therapist or psychologist down the road.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if the phone rings and she’s asked to join the track team at some school,” Nagel said. “I don’t think we’ve seen the last of her competing.”
Gray will bring her violin to college.
“I actually have two of them in my house,” Gray said. “But I think I’m better in track. The atmosphere at track meets is amazing. People are watching you run. Sometimes, I get so nervous, but I know if I bring my ‘A’ game, I’ll get the job done.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com.