Kim Conley was in fifth place, more than 20 meters behind third-place runner Julia Lucas with less than 200 remaining, in the 5,000-meter final at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials in Eugene, Ore., last week.
To qualify for the Olympics, she needed to finish in the top three and run five seconds faster than she had ever run to achieve the "A" standard time.
Four years ago, Conley had graduated from UC Davis without sponsorship offers that would support her Olympic quest, but she did not want to quit competitive running.
Conley's coach at UC Davis, Drew Wartenberg, persuaded her to delay graduate school and pursue her goal.
"I graduated feeling like I had so much unfinished business," said Conley, 26. "I wasn't ready to be done. I felt like I had so much more to prove. And it was the same thing in Eugene. Even down to the last 100 meters of the race, I just wasn't ready to be done."
As Conley rounded the final turn, she remembered the words Wartenberg had written her before the race: "Do something heroic."
Conley surged toward the finish line, passed Abbey D'Agostino for fourth place in the homestretch and thrust her chest forward at the line to outlean Lucas in a photo finish.
Conley threw her hands in the air when "15:19.79" flashed next to her name on the reader board. Just .04 seconds ahead of the fourth-place finisher and .21 seconds below the Olympic standard, Conley had qualified for the London Games.
Later that evening, Wartenberg sent a good-luck email to UC Davis swim coach Pete Motekaitis, who was in Omaha, Neb., with former Aggies swimmer Scott Weltz at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
"Never count an Aggie out," Wartenberg wrote.
The next day, Weltz, an unsponsored athlete who decided to aim for the Olympics after graduating in 2010, shocked the swimming world. He upset Beijing gold medalist Brendan Hansen and American-record holder Eric Shanteau to finish first in the 200-meter breaststroke and win a spot on the Olympic roster.
For Conley and Weltz, the road to London required sacrificing professional dreams, modifying training plans to fit financial realities and asking for support from family, friends and the community.
Weltz said he didn't see opportunities for himself to swim after graduation, but he began training for the Trials at the encouragement of his coach.
"(Motekaitis) told me that I shouldn't live my life with regret," Weltz said. "There were so many guys who didn't get to finish their careers at Davis when the program was cut (in 2010). I felt like I wanted, like I had the opportunity to represent UC Davis."
Weltz threw himself back into training, a commitment that precluded full-time work.
"I couldn't work a normal job and be able to travel for five days at a time to compete at meets," he explained.
While top American competitors benefited from sponsorships and time with the U.S. national team, Weltz structured his training around part-time jobs. He became a masters coach at Davis Swim and Fitness and a youth coach for the Davis Aquamonsters.
With Motekaitis serving as the Aquamonsters' head coach, Weltz's jobs enabled training and time to travel to competitions, but the income did not cover his expenses.
Financial matters were further complicated when juggling the jobs interfered with his training, races and recovery.
Between 2010 and 2012, Weltz borrowed $15,000 from friends, family and community members to help cover the costs of food and rent for his one-bedroom apartment in Davis.
"It was a really big risk. I wouldn't say anything about this has been rational," Weltz, who left the masters position but kept the Aquamonsters post, said with a laugh.
Weltz's mother, Rhonda, a teacher at Bret Harte Middle School in San Jose, said that despite the financial difficulty, the family has been proud to help Weltz chase his dream.
"I've been teaching for 37 years and hoped to retire," she said. "But Scott eats every 20 minutes of the day. We did the best we could to help him pay rent and eat food."
Stories of collegiate athletes such as Weltz and Conley who graduate without the financial support to continue competing are not uncommon, according to John Mansoor, co-founder of the Sacramento Running Association. The organization supports local runners with Olympic potential with funds raised from the California International Marathon.
Mansoor said Stephanie Brown Trafton, the 2008 Beijing gold medalist in the discus who lives in Galt, faced similar financial obstacles after graduating from Cal Poly in 2003 and while training for the Athens Games in 2004.
"Where you need the support is prior to getting the medal," Mansoor said, "but too often the support comes after getting the medal. The process is very difficult on athletes' mentalities because you've got the pressure to go out and start your work career."
After declining an acceptance to graduate school in physical therapy, Conley took an assistant coaching position at UC Davis that gave her access to training facilities and provided a small stipend.
Still, Conley faced burdens other professional athletes did not. She could not afford to travel to Europe for the pro circuit last summer and had to think through how she was going to buy each pair of running shoes, Wartenberg said.
She got "crafty" with her training and lifestyle, according to Wartenberg. She ran with the men's team at UC Davis and arranged a fall road-racing schedule, highlighted by top-three finishes at the USA 5K and 10K Championships, to win prize money to pay for travel.
In January, the Sacramento Running Association award- ed Conley a $10,000 grant that enabled her to step away from her position at UC Davis and assume a smaller role as a volunteer coach.
Rather than rushing through workouts to time the collegiate runners and traveling most weekends to coach and recruit, Conley could take more time to recover from running 60 to 90 miles each week.
"That grant enabled the .04," she said, referring to the margin of time that made her an Olympian.
On Tuesday, Conley signed a contract with New Balance.