The U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials had treated Stephanie Brown Trafton and Kim Conley well over the years – extraordinarily well.
Brown Trafton survived the cauldron to compete in three Olympics in the discus, winning a groundbreaking gold medal in 2008. Conley’s manic sprint to nab the third and final qualifying spot in the 5,000 meters at the 2012 Trials signaled her arrival as a top distance runner.
But Saturday morning at Hayward Field, the leading Sacramento-area contenders for spots on the U.S. team that will be heading to Rio de Janeiro experienced the crueler side of the Olympic Trials.
“You can’t make every Olympic team, I guess,” Brown Trafton said after finishing fifth in the discus final. “Or at least I can’t.”
Just as Brown Trafton came up short on her final throw in the discus, leaving the 36-year-old Galt thrower two places and 6,800 miles short of Rio, Conley jogged off the track with four laps remaining in the women’s 10,000-meter final.
The percentage of me throwing again is low. Some people throw for fun, but that’s not me. It’s a sacrifice. It’s work.
Discus thrower Stephanie Brown Trafton
Conley, a 30-year-old resident of West Sacramento, suffered the distance runner’s nightmare – a “flat tire” caused by another competitor stepping on an opponent’s heel. Running comfortably with the lead pack on the 10th lap, Conley was forced to sit down on the track and put her right shoe back on.
By the time she resumed running, the leaders were at least 50 meters in front.
Conley moved up to seventh place with eight laps left, but the leaders were increasing the pace. Conley opted to retire early to save herself for Thursday’s qualifying heats of the 5,000 meters.
“I got flat-tired,” Conley said. “I thought I had plenty of time to catch up, but the gap started to increase. Knowing that I still have the 5,000, I thought the right call was to drop out.”
Molly Huddle, the American record holder in the 5,000, won Saturday’s 10,000 in 31 minutes, 41.62 seconds. Emily Infield (31:46.09) and Marielle Hall (31:54.77) claimed the other two Olympic spots. Chelsea Reilly Sodaro, a Davis High School and Cal graduate, finished 19th in 34:22.31.
Conley’s best time in the 10,000 is 31:48.71. She had geared her 2016 training toward the 25-lap race.
“Hopefully I’ve got the speed I’ll need for the 5,000,” Conley said. “I’m going to try to look at this as a good workout.”
Brown Trafton, mother of a 2-year-old daughter, talked of no more workouts after failing to match her distance (199 feet, 5 inches) in Friday’s discus qualifying round. Her longest throw in Saturday’s final measured 195-8.
“The percentage of me throwing again is low,” Brown Trafton said. “Some people throw for fun, but that’s not me. It’s a sacrifice. It’s work.”
Whitney Ashley (204-2), Shelbi Vaughan (197-9) and Kelsey Card (197-3) claimed the three Olympic berths. Ashley is the oldest of three at 27; Vaughan is 21, and Card is 23. Together they have won four of the last five NCAA titles. Card and Vaughan spoke excitedly of a changing of the guard, though Vaughan grew emotional when informed Brown Trafton plans to retire.
The 6-foot-4 Brown Trafton is a towering figure in more ways than one in discus circles. Her win at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 was the first by an American female discus thrower since 1932. She was attempting Saturday to become the first U.S. woman to qualify for four Olympic teams in the discus.
“When I qualified for the Trials (as a 17-year-old) in 2012, Stephanie took me under her wing,” Vaughan said. “She texted me when I broke the national high school record to offer her congratulations. She’s definitely somebody that I look up to.”
Brown Trafton opened Saturday’s final with a throw of 192-8 and improved in the fourth and sixth rounds, but it wasn’t enough. She said her technique never felt right in the final.
I got flat-tired. I thought I had plenty of time to catch up, but the gap started to increase. Knowing that I still have the 5,000, I thought the right call was to drop out.
Kim Conley, after a competitor stepped on her heel and dislodged her shoe in the 10,000 meters
“That discus has a mind of its own,” Ashley said. “If you don’t throw it just right, you’re in trouble.”
While Ashley, Vaughan and Card celebrated, Brown Trafton jogged across the field to kiss her daughter, Juliana, and her husband, Jerry.
“It takes a village, and I’ve got a great support team,” she said.
Brown Trafton’s eyes welled with tears when she spoke of how much she wanted to take one last victory lap in front of the Eugene faithful.
“It just didn’t come together,” Brown Trafton said. “But if I have to go out somewhere, this is a good place to do it. I’ve had so many great experiences here. You can’t come to a better place to throw the discus.”
She left the competition door slightly open.
“Maybe I’ll wait until 40 and throw in some masters meets,” she said. “Right now, I just want a good back rub.”