Three area track & field athletes ready step into Rio spotlight

While Cale Simmons was already in Rio de Janeiro, soaking in “one of the coolest experiences of my life,” Kim Conley and Kate Grace watched the Olympics Opening Ceremony from the air-conditioned comfort of a Brazilian steakhouse in The Woodlands, Texas.

Simmons arrived in Brazil in time to walk with his U.S. teammates in last week’s Parade of Nations at Olympic Stadium. Track and field anchors the second half of the Olympic program, and the former Rocklin High School and Air Force Academy pole vaulter will be the first of three Sacramento-area athletes to compete on the sport’s biggest stage. Qualifying for the men’s pole vault is Saturday morning.

“I’m so impressed by everything, especially the U.S. setup and facilities,” Simmons wrote in an email from Brazil. “ They’ve done such an awesome job; it comes as no surprise why we’re so good.”

With Conley not competing until Tuesday’s qualifying heats in the women’s 5,000 meters, and Grace making her Olympic debut the following day in 800-meter qualifying, they opted to skip the Opening Ceremony and continue training in the Texas humidity. They arrived in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday morning following a red-eye flight from Houston.

“It was hard explaining to people that I wasn’t there,” Grace said of her decision to skip the Opening Ceremony. “It would have been a very long day. I’ll be at the Closing Ceremony.”

Simmons and Conley haven’t competed since last month’s U.S. Olympic Track & Trials in Eugene, Ore. Conley did three weeks of altitude training in Flagstaff, Ariz., before joining Grace for some warm-weather preparation outside Houston. Simmons bounced between his home base in Colorado Springs and the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. Grace competed once, winning a 1,500-meter race on July 29 in Eugene following a couple of weeks of training in Sacramento.

Simmons, 25, placed a surprising second at the Olympic Trials, clearing 18 feet, 6 1/2 inches, the second-highest jump of his life. The field in Rio includes Renaud Lavillenie, the defending Olympic champion from France. The acrobatic Lavillenie cleared 20-2 1/2 in 2014 to break the 21-year-old world record held by Sergey Bubka.

Canadian Shawn Barber won last year’s world title, and U.S. champion Sam Kendricks is also expected to contend for a medal. Simmons will most likely need to exceed his career best of 18-9 1/4 to have a shot.

“The last couple of weeks in practice have been great,” said Simmons, who will make his international debut at the Olympics. “My goals are to definitely to make the finals and to jump a personal best. It would be great to put it all together in the final.

“Who knows what could happen in that scenario?”

Grace moved to Sacramento in 2015 to train with the NorCal Distance Project, a group of professional runners coached by Conley’s husband, Drew Wartenburg. The 27-year-old Yale graduate avoided a pileup on the final curve at the Olympic Trials to win in 1 minute, 59.10 seconds.

“It’s going to be my first international meet, but I got a (personal record) at the Trials, and I feel I can do it again,” Grace said.

Grace’s event is shaping up to be one of the most contentious of the Olympics. The center of the storm is Caster Semenya, a 25-year-old South African who leads the 2016 world list at 1:55.33 and is seen as close to unbeatable heading into Rio.

In the wake of Semenya’s breakthrough win as an 18-year-old at the 2009 World Championships, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled that she undergo gender verification testing. Semenya was required to take testosterone-reducing medicine starting in 2010, at which point her performance level dipped.

But when an “intersex” athlete from India challenged the IAAF decision last year, the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that the sport’s international governing body had no right to regulate testosterone in hyperandrogenic women.

Freed from taking the medication, Semenya has dominated the Diamond League circuit this summer. The manner in which she beat many of the world’s best 800 runners indicates Semenya could challenge the venerable world record of 1:53.28, set by Jarmila Kratochvilova of Czechoslovakia in 1983.

“I’m aware of the attention, but I’m not looking at a lot of news sites,” Grace said. “I’m focusing on my own path to the finals. It’s almost like I’m living in a bubble.”

After being eliminated in the 5,000-meter heats at the London Olympics, Conley finished 12th in the 2013 World Championships and lowered her best to 15:08.61 in 2014. That same year, she moved up to the 10,000 meters and won her first national title at the U.S. Championships in Sacramento.

Conley focused her training on the longer race in the months preceding the Olympic Trials, but another runner clipped her shoe in Eugene and she didn’t finish the 10,000. The 30-year-old UC Davis graduate rebounded in the 5,000, placing third to make her second Olympic team.

While the 5,000 isn’t her strongest distance – Conley plans to make her marathon debut this fall in New York – she is approaching next week’s qualifying round as if it were the final.

“Making it through the Olympic Trials is trial by fire,” Wartenburg said. “You come out of it thinking, how much harder can the Olympics be? At the same time, these are the handpicked best in the world. Kim feels that advancing to the final would be a big step.”

Ethiopians and Kenyans are expected to battle for the medals in Rio. The 5,000 field includes Tirunesh Dibaba, the world record holder at 14:11.15; Dibaba’s compatriot Almaz Ayana, the 2016 world leader at 14:12.59; and Kenyan Vivian Cheruiyot, the Olympic silver medalist in London. But with Ethiopia and Kenya limited to three athletes in each of the distance races, and with the qualifying rounds typically being tactical affairs, Conley is hopeful of claiming one of the spots in the Aug. 19 final.

“In 2012, it took 15:06 to make the final,” Conley said. “My workouts have been better than they were going into the Olympic Trials. The most important thing is to be ready for tactics you see in the (qualifying) rounds. If I make the final, I have two days to develop a plan for that. I just hope I can bring it all together.”


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