Kate Grace Interview
following her 800m victory at the 2016 US Olympic Track & Field Trials
EUGENE, Ore. – After surviving the shoving and bumping of the qualifying rounds, Kate Grace took her coach’s advice for the final of the women’s 800 meters at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials.Drew Wartenburg, Grace’s coach for the past year with the Sacramento-based NorCal Distance Project, advised to stay close to the curb.
“We talked about two things beforehand,” Wartenburg said. “First, stay out of trouble. Second, you haven’t been gassed yet. Go to the bottom of the well.”
Grace followed his advice perfectly, By running in fifth and sixth place on the inside most of the way, the 27-year-old Yale graduate streaked to victory in a career-best time of 1 minute, 59.10 seconds. She avoided the entanglement that sent pre-race favorites Brenda Martinez and Alysia Montaño to the track and forced fourth-place finisher Molly Ludlow to break stride and hurdle the fallen Martinez.
“We saw that I kept getting into trouble with jostling in the first two rounds,” Grace said. “I’m happy that Drew pointed that out to me. It’s been my instinct to run on the outside.”
For much of the spring, as she ran errands or drove to workouts around the Sacramento area in her black Toyota Prius, Grace’s thoughts drifted toward the same faraway place.
What would feel like to actually 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 women’s 800 meters Monday at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, Grace displayed no emotion. Ajee’ Wilson and Chrishuna Williams, the second- and third-place finishers who joined Grace on the U.S. team headed to the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, celebrated with gusto.
As 21,713 fans at 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.”
The win validated Grace’s decision last summer to leave her training base in Bend, Ore, and join the NorCal Distance Project. 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.
Sidelined for much of 2014 and 2015 by a torn plantar ligament in her right big toe, Grace contacted Wartenburg last March. 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 Olympic Trials.
“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.
Conley, Grace’s training partner and role model, experienced a bad break in
Saturday’s 10,000 final. Conley’s 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 her energy for the 5,000, the event in which she qualified for the 2012 Olympics.
“I take my cues from Kim,” Grace said. “She’s such a strong competitor. I was amazed at how she responded after the 10,000. She didn’t mope or feel sorry for herself. She immediately switched her focus to the 5,000. She’s all in.”
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. Her highest finish in the NCAA Championships while at Yale was fifth in 2011.
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 on Aug. 20, the day of the Olympic 800-meter final in Rio de Janeiro.