A miraculous run to the London Olympics

Kim Conley was boxed in, running in eighth place and so far back she did not even appear on the TV screen for much of the final lap. She was as close to dead in a 5,000-meter race as one can get and still have a competitive pulse.

Conley, a former Montgomery High School standout, had led much of Thursday night's Olympic trials race in Eugene, Ore., pushing the pace because she needed to both place in the top three and to run a 15:20 - five seconds faster than her personal best - to earn a trip to next month's London Games.

With a lap to go, she had paid a tremendous price for her efforts to dictate the race, getting buried in the pack of competitors as the lead runners galloped away.

Her coterie of fans in the stands at the University of Oregon's Hayward Field saw the race slipping away from the 26-year-old.

"To be totally honest, as a coach in those moments, you start seeking damage control. How can the finish be respectable at this point? Let's pass a person or two and let's get top five," said Drew Wartenburg, Conley's coach and head coach of the UC Davis track team where she ran as a collegian.

Conley knew her race strategy had sapped her strength and allowed the other runners to streak away in the closing moments.

"Normally, you wouldn't put yourself in the lead and do all the work for everybody else, but I had to take the risk," Conley said.

Val Sell, Conley's track and cross country coach at Montgomery High, was in the stands, in disbelief at how far back the gritty runner she knew had fallen - a distant fifth for much of the final lap of the 12.5 lap race.

"I thought, &‘No way.' There was no way. There was a huge gap," Sell said.

Conley had moved up to fifth place and she understood the gap was still huge. But she also understood the runner in front of her wasn't pulling away and the runner in third was fading.

"I didn't want to give up on the dream of making the team," she said Friday from Eugene. "I just dug in."

She dug in and ran - past the fourth-place runner and bearing down on third place.

Lunging at the finish line, Conley nipped Julia Lucas, formerly of North Carolina State University, for third by the slimmest of margins.

Conley took third place by 0.04 seconds and bested the Olympic standard time by 0.2.

Conley was in.

"I just can't believe that I'm really going to be a part of it," she said.

"It is an interesting challenge to wrap weeks, months and years into one evening, let alone one moment, but that is what it came down to," Wartenburg said.

Conley has watched and rewatched tape of the race and still can't believe it turned out the way it did. It was that close.

"It was a huge upset. No one was expecting her to come back," Sell said.

"I have never seen, in all my years of coaching . . . ," Sell said, her voice trailing off.

For Conley, the lifelong dream became filled Friday with practical realities. She spent more than two hours getting tutored on travel schedules and logistics and figuring her way through U.S. team garb and track gear.

She's thinking of heading to Europe well before her Aug. 7 preliminary race in London in order to compete in a tune-up event.

"I mean, it's just surreal," she said. "I keep pinching myself."

A pinch.

The space between two fingers was what separated Conley from a spot on the U.S. Olympic team and watching the race from her couch at home in Sacramento.

"I have had it as my goal and my dream to be an Olympian," she said. "When I thought about making the team, I hadn't thought it all of the way through."

"I'm going to be in the Olympics," she said in wonder.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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