Some people begin dreaming and training for the Olympics from a very young age, dedicating every decision in their lives to the path of getting to the quadrennial event.
Kim Conley is not one of those. Her dream materialized right after graduating from UC Davis in 2009. She had a very successful running career with the Aggies, earning conference and regional honors, setting multiple school records on the way. But she says herself, she had a long way to go to get to the Olympics.
“When I graduated, my personal record was a 16:17 [in the 5,000-meter], and the A-standard to even be selected for the Olympic team was 15:20. So I had to shave a minute off my time,” Conley said. “I didn’t have a fast enough time to go pro, but [coach Drew Wartenburg] inspired me to keep going.”
Upon graduation in 2009, Conley continued her service to UC Davis by staying on as an assistant coach for the cross country team and the track distance runners. Yet Wartenburg, the director of Track and Field and Cross Country, saw more in her than Conley may have seen in herself.
“Drew was nudging me because he believed I had a lot of undeveloped potential,” she said. “He told me I could never get those years back — I have my whole life to get a job or go to grad school, but if I stopped running I wouldn’t be able to go back and see how good I could have been.”
Wartenburg praised Conley’s commitment.
“She thrives on competition and she loves to train, which is the hardest part of playing a sport,” Wartenburg said. “She has a hunger and something to prove, and this feeds into having a key sense of focus and commitment.”
Thus began the training regime for Conley, who ran both the 1,500-meter and the 10,000-meter to train for her 5,000-meter. Yet the goal for London 2012 was to find out how well she could compete at this level, then really work towards Rio de Janeiro for 2016.
Fast forward to June 28 of the current year, and Conley finds herself in Oregon, miles better than she was before. She had cut her 5,000-meter time down to 15:24, but was still short of the 15:20, the “A-standard” that would guarantee her a spot in the field in August.
In hindsight, Conley and Wartenburg both think it was a risky move, entering the race having never reached the time she needed. It was impossible to say what could happen to Conley, who needed to shave five seconds off a personal best while running on the biggest stage in her life.
“Going into the trials without the standard was a gamble, and we knew that at the time,” Wartenburg said. “We talked about it and we don’t ever want to do it again because she had to get top three in the finals of the trials without that standard.”
About 4,000 meters into the race, it was looking bleak for Conley. She was about in the middle of the pack and was even starting to count herself out. At least she had her shot — 2012 was supposed to be a gauge for her anyways, to see her chances for 2016. Conley says she had a moment where she was thinking it wasn’t going to happen.
“Then I regrouped and just fought really hard for that third spot,” she said. “I wanted to honor the three years of training I put into it, all the support from my family and from Drew.”
With one final surge, she leaned over the finish line to edge Julia Lucas by .04 seconds. Conley’s time of 15:19.79 was not only five seconds better than her old personal best, but it was just under the 15:20 “A-Standard.”
“It was real exciting to get that third place finish, but when the time popped up and I had gotten the standard, I was shocked because I couldn’t believe we sneaked under it,” she said.
Having achieved this feat, Conley moved on to the London Olympics. The 5,000-meter event was on Aug. 7, where she placed 12th in her first round heat (22nd overall between the two heats) with another personal record of 15:14.98. Unfortunately this time did not advance her to the final medal round, where the top 15 times from the heats advanced.
“We created a vision and a plan and saw it materialize,” Wartenburg said. “Being from Davis, Kimmy had something to prove and we ran with that underdog mentality.”
Yet London was still an experience to be cherished and by no means a disappointment. Conley stayed at the Olympic Village and met all the other track athletes as well.
“You can’t help but run fast because there are so many people watching and screaming, and I still came home with a PR even though I didn’t feel like I had the race I wanted,” she said.
Now, having returned to the United States, Conley will return to her same position as the assistant coach for cross country and track and field. But it would be a lie to say everything will be back to normal.
“After the trials, I signed with New Balance, so I can run professionally now,” she said. “Distance runners peak in their early 30s, so in 2016 I’ll be 30. Rio isn’t a dream anymore, it’s a goal and so is the Olympics for 2020.”
Conley often talks about the journey to the Olympics with pronouns like “we” rather than “I,” displaying the appreciation she has for all those supporting her throughout the process.
“The Olympics are as high as I can possibly dream of and we’ve been working so hard for so long, it opened my horizons to everything that’s out there and it made me want more than just getting to the Olympics,” she said, with a laugh at the irony of that statement.
Just getting to the Olympics, the biggest athletic stage in all of sports, isn’t just a dream for this small-town hero. It was a reward and a stepping stone.
“It couldn’t happen to a nicer person or someone that works harder,” Wartenburg said. “It’s a tangible inspiration that we can tell people that if they have a dream and want to go somewhere, look at Kim Conley and you know it can happen.”
MATTHEW YUEN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.