It was our first time seeing her post-Olympics. There was a frenzy! Hugs and hellos and office chaos. We gathered round the family table and got to hear stories from Rio. Of course, the first thing someone blurted out was, “Is it true there were condom machines in the athlete village?!” Ah yes, office culture never changes.
But seriously, was the athlete village a crazy party scene?
KATE: I didn’t experience crazy partying, but maybe people were. When people got done with their events, like the swimmers and the gymnasts. The track runners, less so, since we were in the second week. Yes, there were condoms in vending machines. They were free but they were also in the middle of the dining hall. So if you wanted one, you had to go over there in the middle of the dining hall and crank the knob. And if the machine was out, you’d be awkwardly standing there cranking the knob.
Were you able to maintain your pre-race routine?
KATE: You work so hard, to be at the pinnacle races, but in a weird way, everything before the race is different than what you’re used to. There are more obstacles. There are more logistics and hoops to jump through. Normally you just roll in and warm up. On this, you have an hour bus ride. This is normal of any major competition. City buses, with the hard plastic seats.
[Someone at The Nest gasps…”Were you able to sit down?!”]
KATE: In general, most athletes got to be able to sit on the bus. I used my neck pillow and eye mask and slept.
We’d done enough background to know what was going on. I had my meditation tapes. We had to get to the venue early. Two hours beforehand. Warm up, everything was normal. For the prelim race, it’s always the most nerve-wracking. If everything goes well, you should make it, but you still need to do all the steps. It was 11am and really hot. The heat of the day. There were ice vests.
Had you formed opinions on what it was going to take to succeed at the 800m in Rio?
KATE: Going into it, I had studied 800m championship races over the past four years. Generally it had gone that you get through the first round around 2:00, and then out of the semis in about 1:58.5. I felt this was within my wheelhouse.
Seems like that’s what happened, with your prelim in just under 2:00. Did it all go to plan?
KATE: Sort of. At the prelim, there weren’t a lot of people in the stands, which was nice; there wasn’t the added pressure of a full stadium. I’m pouring water on myself. I finished my race and saw the time and saw that it was sub 2:00, but I didn’t get that number two spot [top two automatically advanced, and the next spots were decided on time]. And then there was this horrible sinking feeling. That maybe I had consciously or subconsciously not put it all out there. That was the most nerve wracking part. Did I come all this way and undercut myself?
It ended up being fine, but it was an insanely nerve wracking.
After the prelim, I was in the heat for 30 minutes and just stood around in my own anxiety. I shouldn’t have done that. I should’ve just gone and chilled. Nothing I was doing could change the result.
After finding out I went through, it was back to the village. Kim [Conley] was there. It was really good to have someone to chat with and be social and calm down with. I got a flush [light massage] and then an ice bath. There were common rooms, and at one point, LaShawn Merritt got in my ice bath, and we just hung out and talked… like college teammates. [Merritt, Team USA bronze medalist, 400m; gold medalist 4x400m]
So the semi-final was next?
KATE: Yep, the semi was the following night and I was really excited. I knew I would have to PR. And it’s a cool feeling knowing that you’d have to go and put it all out there. I could just show what I’d been working on. There was nothing to hold back. Because I haven’t been at this level for a long time, I haven’t been able to race against a lot of these women. It was one of the first races – other than the Trials race, which was a weird one – where I was running at the top of the world.
I used my mantras. Feeling good. Chill. Night race. Haha, I got locked inside a bathroom an hour before my race. Yep, really. I finally got out, but it could’ve been disastrous. It ended up being funny. Got my adrenaline pumping. In a weird way, it brought me down to Earth. You can laugh at yourself. It’s the semi finals at the Olympics, but random, funny stuff still happens. Like a high school meet.
One of my goals in the semi was running a smooth tangent. Get out, and go all the way to the end, and don’t immediately cut in. This was to avoid hiccups in my momentum. In the prelim, I needed to pause, and then I used extra energy accelerating.
So I ran a great tangent. I ended up behind someone and then Semenya was there on the outside. She came by me, and she’s large, so I just followed in her path. I had to back out of a box and follow her around. But it ended up being smart.
What was your finish strategy for the Semi, following your performance in the prelim?
KATE: Looking back, in my prelim, I had tried to make up all my ground in the last 100m. But that’s not a great place to be. I have a lot of strength. So the goal in the semi was to play some of my cards with 300 to go. Don’t back off in that middle part of the race.
This was a huge step forward for me. To be awake in the race. In Game of War, there’s this whole idea of being so in the moment and mindful that you are reacting before people realize there’s something to react to. It appears you’re being prescient in your racing. In the last 75m, I had started to move out, but second place started to drift, so I said okay, I made the decision to sneak through on the inside.
That was a PR. Yep. And I was onto the final.
Wow. How’d you feel afterwards?
KATE: The next day, I was very tired. A day of rest getting ready for the Final. More zenning out. And in a way, trying to not revel so much in the semi. Still wanted to be focused. When I had written out my goals, making the Olympics was the big one, but the secret goal was making the Olympic Final. I felt very accomplished at this point, but I didn’t want to feel satisfied.
Another flush, then home, and sleep. It was hard. It was midnight and difficult to calm down.
Getting excited for another chance. Anything can happen in a final. Trying to not put too much pressure on myself. It was a weird feeling, ended up getting 8th. Our plan was to be in the mix and pick people off. Even though my time was a little bit slower than the time before, it was the most tired I’d been. Probably just an accumulation of everything leading up to that race. The three races had been big performances for me.
Truly incredible what you were able to achieve – getting to the Final!
KATE: I felt spent afterwards. But in a good way. I was able to go and see my family and still feel proud, having been there. It’s funny, talking to people afterwards and getting all the reactions. It sucks losing, especially in that race. Where it’s the most public display of what I do.
But that’s the power of what we do. What we all do, as athletes.
I believe that there is a humility that comes with racing that is so important as people. You win, and achieve great things. But you’re not always winning. There’s a part of me that has to acknowledge that, and it’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s a necessary one. Even seeing other people go for their goals, that’s the power of sport. To go through loss, and realizing you survive. And it’s okay. I believe that I have more in me, but that’s what I had on that day. The biggest thing has been wanting to bring people with me. It would have been so cool to do well in the final. And being able to bring people along is so powerful. Even though it’s such a great story, the cool thing is that there’s still a story, and there’s people that follow. And that they reach their goals, and I support them too.
[Lots of tears at The Nest]
Can you tell us about what it was like to compete against Caster Semenya?
KATE: By the end of the summer, I got annoyed hearing people talk badly about her. Her competing was allowed. She wasn’t cheating. It was so irritating to hear people tear her down. I felt like building her up, and saying that’s a horrible position to be put in.
But then there’s also this idea that women are a protected class, and that we need to have definitions because they’re important for running the sport. So that makes sense to me that we need to define women’s sports. Testosterone is the biggest difference between men and women in a sports context. Putting a limit on testosterone in women makes sense.
But I also see that a lot of what’s best about sport is that it’s unifying, universal. All countries, all social classes, all education levels. On one hand, I believe in protecting women’s sports, but I also believe there is more nuance, and not having it bleed over into hateful thinking and behavior. And whatever we do in sport, to not have it equate to self defining gender in other areas. People should be able to define themselves the way they want to.
Shortly after, you went to the Zurich Diamond League, where you essentially got a do-over with the same field as the Olympic Final. What was that like?
KATE: Yes, I got a rematch in Zurich. I ran 1:58.28 and set a new PR.
It was so much more low key in some ways. But the stadium was packed. It was really exciting.
Then you got on a plane and flew to NYC for the 5th Avenue Mile. Woah.
KATE: Yes! The 5th Ave Mile. It starts with an uphill and then a downhill. We went out fast but it felt really slow to me, because I’ve been running so fast and short. But with 600m to go, I wanted to be done. In my ideal situation, I wanted to compete more. You can tell people who really road race. Still, I got 5th in a strong field, and was happy to be there that day.
My sister, Perrie, who lives in NYC, also ran the mile. A friend at work had bet her that she couldn’t break 6 minutes in the mile. And I was like pshhhh, she’s my sister! Leading up to the race, she was nervous, and it was a good reminder, that we all get the jitters. She ran 5:56. I’m so proud of her.
Come get a singed Kate Grace fan card at the Oiselle Flagship Store in Seattle 9/13 @ 6:30pm!