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Kate Grace Steers Clear Of Tangling Runners To Win 800-Meter At Trials

By Karen Rosen | July 04, 2016, 10 p.m. (ET)

EUGENE, Ore. – Grace and heartbreak emerged from the women’s 800 meters at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field.

Kate Grace competes in the women's 800-meter final at the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track & Field at Hayward Field on July 4, 2016 in Eugene, Ore.

Kate Grace was the unexpected champion Monday after a collision – ruled incidental contact by officials -- took pre-race favorites Brenda Martinez and Alysia Montano out of the running on the final curve.

“Yes, my heart hurts when those things happen in track, but yes, it is part of racing,” said Grace, who finished with a personal best time of 1 minute, 59.10 seconds. Ajee’ Wilson (1:59.51) and Chrishuna Williams (1:59.59) join Grace as first-time Olympians.

Montano, a six-time national champion who was fifth at the London 2012 Olympic Games, was leading the race when she was overtaken before the curve by Wilson, Raevyn Rogers and Martinez, the 2013 World Championships bronze medalist. As Montano tried to get back in front, there was a tangle. Martinez was thrown off-stride and Montano fell to the ground.

Montano said she immediately thought, “Get up, get up!”

“It doesn’t really settle in at that moment in time, especially when this is it,” she said. “You get up and they’re really far away and your heart breaks.”

While Martinez eventually finished seventh in 2:06.63, it looked like Montano would not cross the finish line. She repeatedly dropped to her knees on the track, bowing her head. She then would get up to run a few more meters. As her husband stood on the track with their daughter in his arms, she finished in 3:06.77.

Although the race was under review for almost two hours, no protests were filed.

“What good would that do me?” Montano asked.

Wilson, 22, a world junior and youth champion who won the national title in 2014, was expected to make the Olympic team.

“Every coach tells their athletes to try to be in the front,” she said. “There are going to be causalities. People are going to bump into each other. It sucks when it’s you, but at the end of the day, it’s part of the game.”

Martinez is a contender in the women’s 1,500 later this week.”I felt great but I got clipped from behind,” she said. “That’s track and field. I’ve got to get ready for the 1,500. Some days it doesn’t go your way. Today it was me.”

And some days it does go your way. On Monday, that was Grace.

“I felt strong,” said Grace, “and my split-second decision was stay on the inside and wait for something to open and I would be able to kick the last 100.”

She showed little emotion as she crossed the finish line.

“I tried to visualize it,” she said of winning the race. “When I pictured it in my mind, I started crying immediately and I didn’t at all (Monday). I think just at the moment, I was almost in shock.

“Despite the fact that I haven’t been here before, I don’t know why I didn’t cry and scream. Maybe in Rio, I’ll cry and scream.”

A 27-year-old former All-American at Yale, Grace’s best finish at a U.S. national championships on the track was fourth in the 800 in 2013, although she did win the USA 1 Mile Championship that same year.

“My moment of truth was last year when I was injured,” she said. “I was basically given an out. told it was OK, if you want to stop now, go toward grad school.”

Grace had suffered a tear in her plantar plate in January 2015. “It’s a random injury and takes forever to heal,” she said. Grace knew she would miss the whole season.

She spoke to a mentor on the phone. “He said, ‘You don’t have to torture yourself. If you want you can go and take time off, pursue other passions.’ He was doing it out of love. He wanted to show me that my world wasn’t ending, but it devastated me.

“I was bawling afterwards. I went to a physical therapy appointment and the physical therapist thought I was crazy; I was crying so hard.”

Anticipating that her career was coming to an end actually turned her life around.

“I feel like I found a fire in those months,” Grace said. “I’ve been carrying that fire ever since. I knew I wanted to do this and I could do this.”

But she also knew she needed the right coach and training program. Grace was living in Bend, Oregon, “in the depths of the injury” when she sent “the weirdest, out-of-the-blue email” to Drew Wartenburg, coach of the NorCal Distance Project in Sacramento, “basically beginning to be on the team. I don’t know what possessed me. I’m usually not that forward.”

But she added, “I had a feeling.”

Grace knew that Wartenburg had success training his wife, Kim Conley, and Lauren Wallace. She also knew she would thrive in a structured environment.

“And it’s been magic,” said Grace, who will talk to Wartenburg about attempting to double in the 1,500. “I’m so thankful to them.”

Last year she drove to the U.S. Championships from Bend and watched from the stands. Soon after, she went to Sacramento.

“At that moment, I could barely run a 7:40 mile,” she said. “It’s surreal. Again, the Olympic dream is always a small fire inside, right? But it was not a reality until recently.”

Also Monday, the men’s javelin was a complicated affair. The Olympic team will be made up of the first- fourth- and 11th-place finishers.

Cyrus Hostetler won the Trials with a toss of 273 feet, 1 inch on his fifth throw, pulling himself up from fourth place. He will be a second-time Olympian, along with his first-time teammates who are going to Rio in unconventional fashion.

While Curtis Thompson was second with a throw of 271-11, he was 12 centimeters – not quite 5 inches – shy of the Olympic qualifying standard of 83 meters (272-4). Riley Dolezal finished third at 261-4, but he also did not have the qualifying standard.

That meant Sam Crouser, whose cousin Ryan won the shot put and who finished fourth with a toss of 256-1, made the Olympic team because he had achieved the qualifying mark. The situation was ironic given that Crouser finished second at the 2012 Olympic Trials, but did not have the qualifying mark and could not go to London.

The only other thrower in the field with the qualifying standard was Sean Furey, whose best toss was 227-10, which was not good enough to make the final, but good enough to make the Olympic team.

“The rules are the rules,” Furey said. “If I make it to the Olympics, I won’t apologize. I’ll go and try to hammer a throw. But I also respect Curtis Thompson, who missed the standard by just 12 centimeters. If he got the (Olympic invite), he deserved it, and I’d root for him.”

World indoor silver medalist Sam Kendricks leads a team of three first-time Olympians to Rio in the pole vault by clearing an Olympic Trials record of 19 feet, 4 ¾ inches on his third attempt. Kendricks had no misses through six heights (19 feet, ¼ inches). He missed on his three attempts at 19-8 ¼.

Cale Simmons, who achieved the Olympic qualifying standard in the nick of time late last month, took second at 18-6 ½ while Logan Cunningham was third at 18-4 ½. Cunningham missed his first two tries at the opening height of 17-8 ½, but made it on his final attempt.

Clayton Murphy overtook Boris Berian at the finish line to win the men’s 800 meters, spreading his arms wide in triumph as he posted a time of 1:44.76. Berian was second in 1:44.92 and Charles Jock also used a homestretch kick to take third in 1:45.48. All are first-time Olympians. 

The men ran right after the women, so they saw what happened.

Berian trains with Martinez. “Seeing her get caught up in all of that, it put me down a little bit,” he said, “but I just focused on the race, do my thing and finish it up. It definitely sucks to see my teammate fall out like that.”

Jock said Montano has been “kind of a big sister to me” on the track circuit.

“I felt really sad for Alysia,” he said. “I’ve known A for a few years now and she’s always someone you can talk to. I felt really bad for her. That emotion that went through her last 100 meters, getting up and having to finish, that really lit a fire for me.”

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