While she ran errands or drove to a workout on the American River Parkway, Kate Grace’s thoughts drifted toward the same faraway place.
What would it feel like to make the Olympic team?
“I pictured that moment so many times the last six months,” Grace said. “I would literally make myself cry in the car, driving random places in the middle of the day. I’d start sobbing, just thinking about it.”
But when she crossed the line first in the 800 meters Monday at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials, Grace displayed no emotion.
The last 100 was a blur. I visualized a win beforehand, but I’ve never won a race like that before. I didn’t know how to act.
Ajee’ Wilson and Chrishuna Williams, the second- and third-place finishers who joined Grace on the U.S. team headed to the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, celebrated with gusto.
And Brenda Martinez and Alicia Montano, the favorites who had taken a tumble on the last turn, were in tears.
As 21,713 fans at the University of Oregon’s Hayward Field roared following the NASCAR-like finish, the winner looked at the results on the video board, saw her name on top, and barely mustered a smile.
“It’s funny that when it happened, that’s not at all how I reacted,” Grace said the following day in a Eugene hotel. “I’m embarrassed – I didn’t do anything. It wasn’t until I saw my friends and family that I cried and screamed.”
Grace, a 27-year-old Yale graduate, avoided the pileup on the final turn and streaked to victory in a career-best 1 minute, 59.10 seconds. By sticking to the rail from the start, Grace avoided the entanglement that sent Martinez and Montano to the track and forced fourth-place finisher Molly Ludlow to break stride and hurdle Martinez.
“The last 100 was a blur. I visualized a win beforehand, but I’ve never won a race like that before,” Grace said. “I didn’t know how to act.”
The win validated Grace’s decision last summer to leave her training base in Bend, Ore., and join the NorCal Distance Project, a Sacramento-based group of elite runners led by former UC Davis coach Drew Wartenburg.
Wartenburg’s wife, Kim Conley, made the 2012 Olympic team in the 5,000 meters and won the 10,000 at the 2014 USA Championships in Sacramento. Another NorCal Project runner, Lauren Wallace, won the 1,000 at the 2015 national indoor meet.
Grace, sidelined for much of 2014 and 2015 by a torn plantar ligament in her right big toe, contacted Wartenburg in March 2015. It took her several weeks to muster the courage to ask if she could join his group. She moved to Sacramento on July 1, a year to the day before the qualifying heats at the Trials.
“I felt like I needed help bringing the pieces together,” Grace said. “Drew’s approach is all-encompassing – not just training but strength, sports psychology, physical therapy, nutrition, recovery. I trust him. He’s an amazing coach.”
A healthy Grace showed good form this spring, clocking 2:00.05 in the 800 and lowering her best in the 1,500 to 4:05.65. She entered both races at the Trials but won’t run the 1,500 now that she’s Brazil-bound.
She will, however, be in the stands Thursday to root on Conley in the 5,000 heats.
Wartenburg geared Conley’s training toward Saturday’s 10,000 final, but her hopes of finishing in the top three were dashed when she had to put her shoe back on after getting clipped early in the race. Conley dropped out with four laps remaining to save energy for the 5,000.
“Watching Kate’s race relaxed me,” Conley said. “It made realize that there are some things you can’t control.”
Grace grew up in Santa Monica and finished third in the 2005 California state meet as a high school sophomore, her best showing in a major meet before Monday’s breakthrough. At Yale, her highest finish in the NCAA Championships was fifth in 2011.
I felt like I needed help bringing the pieces together. Drew’s approach is all-encompassing – not just training but strength, sports psychology, physical therapy, nutrition, recovery. I trust him. He’s an amazing coach.
Kate Grace, on joining the NorCal Distance Project led by UC Davis coach Drew Wartenburg
After being eliminated in the qualifying rounds at the 2012 Olympic Trials, Grace improved to 1:59.47 in 2013 and was the fourth-ranked American. Wartenburg views his role in reviving her career as a case of “putting the wheels back on the rail.”
“In the lead-up to the Trials, we were really committed to the idea that she’d make the team, so it wasn’t a shock to me,” Wartenburg said. “But the one thing we didn’t talk about beforehand was winning, because making the podium at the Trials is the same as winning.”
Perhaps she’ll get a second shot at celebrating Aug. 20, the day of the 800 final in Rio de Janeiro.