Local Olympians Discuss Breaking Barriers and More
By Sydney Zuelke
Photo Credit: Sean Dulany
With the 2016 Rio Olympics under their belts, teammates Kate Grace and Kim Conley are already looking forward to their next challenge. But before the next starting pistol fires, these two incredible athletes will make an appearance at Women in Sports Night presented by MW Wines – happening when the Kings face the Spurs Wednesday, Nov. 16 inside Golden 1 Center.
We had a chance to catch up with the local-area Olympians in between their rigorous training schedule. The two athletes, who train as part of the NorCal Distance Project, talked about breaking barriers in the world of sports and their excitement surrounding the upcoming U.S. Championships, held right here in Sacramento.
Golden 1 Center: Kate, you are only the second woman to represent Yale in track & field in the Olympics. How does it feel to be breaking those boundaries?
Kate Grace: It’s an honor to be able to represent. I was able to go back to visit the school about a month ago and see everyone on the Track and Cross County teams. I love being a role model and helping push them to achieve their dreams like the people above me did – including Kate O’Neill, who was a previous Olympian. She was a role model to me when I was there and encouraged me to break those barriers.
Golden 1 Center: Kim, you’ve said that that you felt like you had unfinished business when it came to pursuing the Olympics. Can you explain where that motivation came from?
Kim Conley: So I ran for five years at UC Davis and I had a personal record every year I was there, so I was making steady progress over the years. But when I graduated, I just knew I hadn’t reached my potential at all. I just wasn’t ready to give up being a competitive athlete, so I committed to doing it for at least another three years. I graduated in 2009 and with the Olympics out there on the horizon, I wanted to find out how good I could be.
Golden 1 Center: Can you describe the feeling after winning a race?
Kate Grace: The feeling is incredible – it’s this feeling in your body, almost like a sixth sense. You’re able to react to things before they’re happening and be intuitive about other racers. It’s just a peace that comes over me. I don’t know if I experience it, or can replicate it in other settings. And also just being really tired.
Kim Conley: It’s so satisfying because there’s so much work that goes into it and so many people that help make that dream come true for you. So I feel a huge sense of gratitude and happiness that I did my part in the team effort that produced that result.
Golden 1 Center: What is a highlight or a moment that sticks out to you as incredibly special in your career?
Kate Grace: Over the past year, making the Olympic team was just a crazy coming together – making the team, but also watching Kim make it. She had been such a mentor to me, and knowing we would go together… that period was like dreams coming true.
Kim Conley: Making the team in 2012 was my big breakthrough, that will always be a special moment. But in 2014 the U.S. Championships were in Sacramento and I won the 10,000 meters. That was my first national title, so that was definitely my favorite moment so far.
Golden 1 Center: Kim, you're from Northern California. How does it feel having the U.S. Championship so close to home?
Kim Conley: I grew up in Santa Rosa, and went to UC Davis, and have lived in West Sacramento since then. Having the U.S. Championship here in June is really, really exciting. When I won my first national title in 2014 here, it was so special. I just really felt the energy of the crowd in Hornet Stadium, feeling like there was a lot of local love for me, so that makes me excited for it to return next year.
Golden 1 Center: Obviously you prepare physically for an event, but how do you prepare mentally?
Kate Grace: Visualization – I do a lot with different affirmations. So I’ll write little mantras on sticky notes around my house. Just to say to myself stuff like ‘What would a champion do,’ or ‘Blame no one,’ ‘expect nothing, do something.’ And then going into the actual races I’ll do different meditative things. I’ve used a lot of mental tactics in the last year that I think helped get me to the next level.
Kim Conley: I work really closely with a sports psychologist and I do a lot of visualization and imagery. I get into a routine to get in the right frame of mind before I compete. One of the sillier ones I like to do is go get a pedicure the week of a race.
Golden 1 Center: As a woman and as an athlete, have you ever felt underestimated? If so, how have you responded to that?
Kate Grace: Yes. And it’s one of those things that I hate the feeling, but it does light a fire. Even last year one of the big things that kind of flipped a switch in me, was I was injured. I didn’t feel that people believed I could come back from it and make the Olympic team, and I realized I had to rely on myself and believe in myself. I had that fire inside to prove people wrong and it was a really empowering thing.
Kim Conley: Yeah, I mean, I think because I entered professional running at the level I did, [coming out of UC Davis] a lot of people wouldn’t have expected me to rise the way I have in this sport. But it’s about focusing on the process and making myself better, and not really worrying what anyone else’s estimation is.
Golden 1 Center: What advice would you give to young girls, pursuing athletics?
Kate Grace: I would say I think the biggest thing is finding something you love and having fun with the process. It takes a long time to get to a level of excellence and so you have to have some kind of enjoyment. Big results are incredible, but those don’t come around as often. For me, at least, I’ve often enjoyed the different teams I’ve been on, and that makes the whole thing worthwhile.
Kim Conley: I think to be as successful as you can be, there has to be a foundation of love for what you do and your desire to be out there is rooted in that. Then you can continue to refine your skills and get better from there.
Golden 1 Center: Do you both plan to return to Team USA for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo? If so, do you think you’ll do anything differently than Rio?
Kate Grace: Yes, right now the immediate plan is to go to the U.S. Championships in Sacramento next June, and you make the World Champs from those. So people in Sacramento can actually come out and watch us in the U.S. Champs! And then in four years, Tokyo 2020.
Kim Conley: Definitely, that’s my goal. It’s always hard and that’s something I really took away from my experience in 2016 - that there’s no easy path onto an Olympic team.