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Benefield: Kim Conley among athletes pondering Olympic delay

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Kim Conley remembers the precise day she saw her vision for her 2020 Olympic dreams take a dramatic left turn. It was that day, mid-month, when major sporting events were getting postponed, then canceled altogether, one after another in a cascade of updates, pings and Tweets as the coronavirus pandemic grew before our eyes and took out just about everything in its path.

“It was Thursday, March 12,” Conley, a 2004 Montgomery High School grad and two-time Olympian, said from her current outpost in Flagstaff, Arizona. “I was constantly getting ESPN updates on my phone.”

The update she didn’t get? The International Olympic Committee’s decision on the fate of the summer games in Tokyo. The decision that would affect her life and work, her dreams and day-to-day actions.

“I kept going, ‘Are the Olympics going to be among them?’ ” she said of the constant cancellations and postponements. “It didn’t really make sense to me that they were being so stubborn.”

In fact, the IOC didn’t make the official call to postpone until Tuesday, until well after athletes and officials and entire national teams (we see you, Canada) condemned the committee’s seeming wait-and-see approach. The games will now be sometime in 2021 (but still be called the 2020 games, don’t ask) but it’s unclear exactly when.

To be fair, moving a thing such as the Olympics is not easy lifting. Billions of dollars are at stake and thousands of athletes will be affected, not to mention the people and government of the host country, Japan. For perspective, consider this: The games have never been postponed and they have been canceled just three times, all for world wars: In 1916, 1940 and 1944.

The track and field as well as swimming world championships were already scheduled for 2021. Holding the Olympics in the spring is possible but poses some logistical challenges with other major sports.

For now, all we know — all athletes really know — is that training plans, dreams and schedules that have for months and years all been laser-focused on games that were to be held July 24-Aug. 9 must now be recalibrated in a major way.

For Conley, who turned 34 two weeks ago and is a contender in both the 5,000 and 10,000 meters, a yearlong wait could be devastating. Or, she says, it could be a gift.

And at least it’s definite. No more openly wondering what the IOC will do.

“I really just felt relieved,” she said of the moment she got the news this week. “I felt like the writing was on the wall.”

To postpone for a month or two would have wreaked havoc. And for athletes who don’t have access to gyms and pools and other places of training, how fair would that be?

“It’s the Olympics, it’s the entire world coming together,” she said. “We don’t know how (coronavirus) is going to grow and spread. You want every athlete to have a fair build-up.”

And it takes a lot of the guesswork out to have it a full calendar year in the future.

“I think a year is much cleaner,” she said. “Our normal system is to have summer championships anyway. That feels right.”

Conley had already hit the qualifying mark for the 5,000 meters in 2019 and was gunning for the same in the 10,000 meters in June. Had she hit the 10K standard, that would likely have been her focus for Tokyo. But now, it’s unclear to Conley if those standards will change with the extension of the lead-up period.

She may have to do some of the legwork again. But with no races on the calendar for the foreseeable future, even the qualifying standards have a question mark next to them.

But to be very clear, all of these questions, Conley is quick to say, are not among the biggest problems in the world right now.

“I have my moments where I have those twinges of regret for how good I have been feeling,” she said. “I try to keep perspective of where we are globally in this crisis. … Me not getting to run a 10,000-meter PR is not a big deal in the grand scheme of things.”

And how Conley was feeling was largely injury free. She’d been hobbled by plantar fasciitis in one foot that changed her gait and caused a tendon tear in her other foot. Recovering from those two injuries started in 2018 and stretched into 2019, she said.

She couldn’t run for large chunks of time. That’s not the case here. So Conley puts that time up next to now and feels grateful that even with all that is happening, she can still get out the door and run.

No races to target, no real training plan and a schedule that’s been largely tossed out, her miles are suddenly relatively unstructured and her road free. She bought a mountain bike. She went on a trail run in Arizona that would have been an absolute no-no had she been staring down the barrel of an Olympic Trials run-up.

“I’m trying to enjoy doing some things I wouldn’t normally,” she said.

And who knows? With another year until the Summer Games, Conley could get faster. She’s done that her whole career.

“I’m a much better athlete today than I was in 2011 or 2012 and I did it then,” she said. “It’s an accumulation of years of work and progress — I have been an athlete that has never had huge, huge breakthroughs over the years.”

She was on Montgomery High’s 2000 CIF state championship cross country team. She was an All Big-West Conference runner at UC Davis.

Her Olympic qualifying race in the 5,000 meters in 2012 — where she had to race to a top-three finish and hit the qualifying time to make the U.S. team — was one of the more riveting performances I can remember. She was 10,000-meter national champ in 2014 and the USATF half-marathon national champ in 2015. She made her second Olympic team, again in the 5,000 meters, in 2016.

But Conley is confident she is getting better. She had hit the qualifying time in the marathon but thinks she still has what it takes for either the 10,000 meters or the 5,000 meters. It’s hard to doubt her with the resume she has crafted over the years.

And it’s hard to doubt that Conley won’t take advantage of this new window of time the postponement has given her. Yes, she’s modifying her life like we all are. No daily trips to the grocery store. No dinners out with friends. Training partners are a thing of the past right now, too.

But the focus remains the same. It’s always been about the Olympics for Conley. But before that, it’s just about running.

“I love running,” she said.

And of all of the things taken away from her, from everyone in these uncertain times, running is not one of them. And for that, she is openly grateful.

“There are definitely still some questions left to be answered,” she said. “So we’ll just continue to run.”

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