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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Whitwell High School student Grace Moore poses at Castle's Outdoors Center on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in Whitwell, Tenn.

In the final months before the coronavirus changed all of our lives, Whitwell High School sophomore Grace Moore won three age-group state archery championships in three different states. Known as Grace-E to many of her friends and family, it's only a rumor that the "E" stands for Extraordinary. In truth, her middle name is Elizabeth, hence the "E."

But as amazing as those championships were, as blindingly bright as her future may be in competitive archery, bows and arrows are far from the most extraordinary part of the 15-year-old's story.

"She was six years old," recalled Grace's mother Alison on Monday night. "The doctor told us that without surgery, the Grace we see would not be the Grace we'd keep."

The option the surgeon was offering Jimmy and Alison Moore to rectify Chiari Malformations — a rare birth defect where portions of the brain, the cerebellar tonsils, protrude through the bottom opening of the skull into the upper spine, causing pressure on the brain or spinal cord — would terrify any parent.

Brain surgery was required. Shaving vertebrae. Removing tissue from the crown of Grace's head to serve as a patch for her brain.

"I'm a nurse, had been for 18 years," said Alison. "And I'd never heard of this. You're told your child has something wrong with their brain and spinal cord. You're terrified."

The seizures started on the 21st day of December in 2011. Grace's speech would be garbled for a few seconds, then return to normal. The first guess by doctors was that she might be having a reaction to some cold medicine. The Moores stopped the medicine. The seizures continued.

"We went to Children's Hospital on Christmas Eve," Alison said. "They did a CT scan that was negative for a brain tumor. We felt better."

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Whitwell High School student Grace Moore poses at Castle's Outdoors Center on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in Whitwell, Tenn.

But a few days after Christmas they went back for an MRI. She was to be in the machine for 40 to 45 minutes. Medical personnel came back after that time and told Alison and Jimmy they needed 40 minutes more.

"That's when I realized this was serious," said Alison.

It was so serious that the doctor who would ultimately operate on Grace at the Alabama-Birmingham Medical Center, renowned surgeon Jerry Oakes, warned the Moores that there could be dire consequences.

"He told us that Grace could have a stroke, bleed to death, become paralyzed," remembered Alison.

But as they debated the risks, they finally came around to one indisputable fact: "We couldn't bear the thought," said Alison, "that we didn't give her a chance to live a normal life."

So Oakes operated, telling the family the procedure would take 82 minutes. Sure enough, after 82 minutes, he emerged with a bag of Grace's shaved hair, including her ponytail, to let the Moores know all had gone well.

Still, there would be six weeks of rehab and healing at home, with the following instructions from Oakes: "No boxing, no football, no wrestling."

Added Alison: "Mom's restrictions were a little longer."

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Whitwell High School student Grace Moore poses at Castle's Outdoors Center on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in Whitwell, Tenn.

But for a 6-year-old girl whose older brother Tyler was active in athletics, being banned from contact sports such as softball, volleyball and the like was a major adjustment.

Said Grace: "We're an active family. I wanted to be active, too."

Enter the Marion County 4-H club, which introduced her to archery.

"I picked it up right off the bat," she said. "It's pretty much my life now."

Said Jody Castle, who was the first person to work with Grace through his Castle Outdoors shop in Whitwell: "A normal person will come to my archery range and shoot 12-15 shots. Grace won't quit until she's shot at least 150 to 200 arrows. I've seen her come here and shoot 500 shots over four or five hours. She's just got a passion for it. And she hits the bullseye almost every time."

How passionate has she become on her way to winning Middle School state titles in Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as being ranked sixth in her age group nationally?

A few years ago, on the way to her 8th grade winter dance, Grace stopped at Castle's store to shoot a 100 or so arrows. She was already wearing her dress and heels.

"Archery is Grace's platform, her ministry," said Alison. "She's as comfortable around a 5-year-old as a 75-year-old when she's discussing archery. You can just see her glow."

Grace says that glow began about the time she picked up the sport and Tyler — now 22 and wrapping up his pre-veterinary medicine degree at the University of Tennessee Knoxville — graduated from Whitwell High.

"Tyler always made good grades and was good in sports," Grace said. "When Tyler left, that was my time to flourish. I started making straight A's and winning archery contests."

No one knows where any of this will lead. Her work with 4-H has made her a national shooting sports ambassador. Her archery talents with both the Marion County 4-H team and the Harvest Archery squad in Dayton, Tenn., continue to move her up the national rankings. If her pre-match meals of cheese fries and lemonade keep doing the trick, she may even turn pro at some point.

Maybe then she could pay her parents back for the cost of those four "Robin Hoods" she's collected. For non-archery buffs, a Robin Hood is when you shoot an arrow into the back of another arrow.

"When Grace was starting out, that was fine," said Alison. "Everybody was impressed. But once she got better and those arrows started costing $20 each, I told her that I thought we'd bought enough $40 trophies."

But for Alison, the most priceless moment of the last nine years, a moment that brings the good and the bad of that time full-circle, centers on Tyler, who began riding his bike and distance running as Grace was dealing with her medical issues.

"That was his coping mechanism," said Grace.

All this training eventually led to an Iron Kids event at Harrison Bay State Park, which Tyler won.

"I looked at his time," said Alison. "It was 82 minutes. I said to myself, 'God took care of both of my kids in 82 minutes."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Whitwell High School student Grace Moore poses at Castle's Outdoors Center on Tuesday, Sept. 8, 2020 in Whitwell, Tenn.
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