The Summer of Kate Grace
By: Carlos Fernandes II
In 2016, Kate Grace won the USA Olympic Trials 800m in a time of 1:59.10 and punched her ticket to the Rio Olympics. As a first time Olympian, Grace made it through to the finals, notching a PR of 1:58.79 in the semifinals and finishing 8th overall. Going into the 2020 Olympic Trials she was ready to make another bid for an Olympic team, however, she finished a disappointing 7th in the finals. Instead of shutting down the season after failing to make the Olympic Team, Grace traveled to Europe to compete at 4 Diamond League races. Her performances at these races have been nothing short of spectacular and fans have been calling this time, “The Summer of Kate Grace.”
When Grace graduated from Yale back in 2011, she wasn’t the great runner she is today. She had PRs of 2:04.22 in the 800m and 4:39.52 in the Mile. She didn’t have any sponsorship offers and was fortunate enough to be given a spot on the NJNY Team coached by the legendary Frank ‘Gags’ Gagliano. During this time, she says she spent “the first year or two learning about the sport. Even though I ran in college I didn’t really understand what it meant to be a runner, a pro runner, mileage, long runs.” There was so much more granularity to running that she’d never experienced and Gags helped her with this initial growth.
Picture from Jeff Cohen
Within a year of working with Gags, Grace dropped her PR down to 1:59 in the 800m, which at the time was done less, and she earned a sponsorship with Oiselle as their first signed athlete. Achieving such great results in a short time period, she started believing that if she could string together four years of quality and consistent training, she could compete with the best. However, everything doesn’t always go according to your plans. Over the next couple of years following her initial success, Grace encountered various setbacks that gave her career a rocky trajectory.
She begun ramping up her milage and training significantly from what she was doing in college too quickly and as a result, overuse injuries began popping up. When she was injured, she says, “I learned a ton about PT, how to stay healthy, and other aspects of training like strength and nutrition.” She also decided to move back to the West Coast in Bend, OR and train under a new coaching staff, Lauren Fleshman and Bob Lesko.
A year later, she moved and changed coaches once again. This time she remained on the West Coast, joining the NorCal Distance Project, coached by Drew Wartenburg. While with Wartenburg, she got to train with Kim Conley and a young, Leah O’Connor. With only a year out from the 2016 Olympic Trials, Wartenburg managed to help her win the Trials and make her first Olympic team.
Picture from Emma Coburn’s Instagram: @emmacoburn
At the beginning of 2021, after Covid-19 postponed the Olympics, Kate Grace decided to make another quick coaching/team change as she left Jerry Schumacher, the coach of Bowerman Track Club (BTC), to join Joe Bosshard, the coach of Team Boss. This decision is parallel to her decision to switch coaches back in 2016 before the Olympics and the success she had then she said helped her make this switch at the beginning of 2021:
“[the change in 2016] gave me the courage to make this switch because I knew in the past that with a short time frame, I’m still able to perform well.”
Grace joined BTC at the end of 2017. The main reason she made this switch was because she had moved up from the 800m to the 1500m after the 2016 Olympics. Seeing the success Schumacher was having with his 1500m athletes convinced Grace that joining BTC would help her succeed in the 1500m. Between 2018 and 2019, Grace managed to run 4:04 or under a total of five times in the 1500m along with four wins, one 2nd place finish, and two 3rd place finishes. Not too shabby for 800m specialist who decided to bump up to the 1500m.
The decision to change teams in the lead up to the 2020 Olympics at the beginning of this year came as a result of Grace’s belief that while she had some success in the 1500m, she believed she was more competitive in the 800m, and that dropping back down to focus on her original event would give her the best chance at making the Olympic team and competing at the World level.
Initially it seemed like this sudden decision to switch teams from BTC to Team Boss didn’t make any sense. Grace announced that she wanted to focus on the 800m, but Team Boss has no 800m specialists. BTC has superb 800m runners in Shelby Houlihan, Elise Cranny, Sinclaire Johnson, and Gabriela Debues-Stafford. However, the results Grace has notched this year establish that this decision to change teams was the right one.
Things started to click for Grace as she won her heat at the USATF Golden Games on May 9th, 2021 with a time of 1:59.72. She then came back twenty days later to run her fastest time since 2016, 1:59.04, at the Portland Track Festival.
Picture from Kate’s Instagram: @fastkate
“The training going into [the Portland Track Festival] and how I did at Mount Sac. gave me the confidence that since I could break 2:00 leading from the front, there was going to be some good stuff this summer.”
With these two stellar performances, Grace indeed looked like she was right on track to be competitive to make the Olympic team. However, the Olympic Trials didn’t go her way as she ended up finishing a disappointing 7th place.
“I was really nervous the first round,” Grace says and she ultimately didn’t like how close it was at the end to qualify for the semifinals. The next round she says, “felt so much better” and her confidence in her racing ability returned. Going into the finals, she felt excited and confident in her ability to be in the top three. When the gun sounded, she chose to run strong and not let anyone gain an inch on her, but with 100m to go, she says, “my legs weren’t there...it sucked.” She finished 7th out of 8 women.
“The biggest thing about running 1:59 is that I thought I was so much better than that. There was this little doubt in my head as to whether this was all I had. Was this my best? It was so cool to be like, ‘no, actually I’m so much better. I can run these fast times.”
The Summer of Kate Grace began four days after her devastating finish at the Olympic Trials, when she traveled to Oslo, Norway to run a Diamond League 800m and won with a new PR of 1:57.60. Three days after this victory, while her legs were still heavy, she ran another 800m Diamond League race in Stockholm, Sweeden, where she finished 3rd with another PR, 1:57.36. This race meant the most to her as it showed her that even on tired legs, she could still run fast. Five days later, she ran another 800m Diamond League race in Monaco. She finished 3rd again and unbelievably lowered her PR further to 1:57.20. Four days after the Monaco Diamond League race, she traveled to Gateshead, Great Britan, and won the Mile in a time of 4:27.20.
In the span of nineteen days, Grace raced seven races, six 800m races that got faster after each one she raced. These performances are unbelievable! So many solid performances at high caliber meets in such short of a time frame is remarkable. However, what makes these performances even more remarkable is that she was able to achieve such outstanding marks following an extremely disappointing and subpar performance at the Olympic Trials.
Picture from Kate’s Instagram: @fastkate
The question now has to be asked, how was Kate Grace able to have such a break through summer season?
This success can be traced back to four things Grace did in 2020 during the ‘covid year’. First, due to suffering some achilles discomfort and the Olympics being postponed a year, she decided to take two months completely off of running. Along with these two months off, she didn’t do a hard workout for three to four months after she initially decided to take time off. Second, she was able to string together months of consistent training where she felt she was able to successfully complete harder workout efforts. Third, the positive environment Coach Bosshard and Team Boss has helped her grow and show up to practice ready to work hard. Lastly, she believes the mindset she developed that year helped her perform the way she did this year:
“It was so clear that the Olympics had been taken away, it showed me how much I wanted it and how I really wanted to fight for myself. That’s what really gave me the impetus to be like ‘I want to make this change and focus on the 800.’”
The time that she took to allow her body to fully recover, the gradual build up back to fitness, consistent quality training, and her mindset ultimately helped Grace have a breakout summer season this year.
“As a runner, you put so much passion into running and that’s great but then it’s fun to one day put that passion somewhere else.”
Grace has now been a professional runner for nine years and initially planned on retiring next year, however, due to her break through this year, she plans on continuing to grow and see how far she can get for the time being before retiring from the sport. Once she retires, she’s looking forward to doing a couple of things. First, she wants to get into a different profession like starting a business or working in the healthcare field. Second, she’s looking forward to settling down and starting a family. Lastly, she has a passion for coaching young runners that she developed while at BTC, when she coached middle schoolers and sees herself coaching runners at the high school level.
To the dreamers:
“Both of my breakthrough years have come after an injury year...There can be a great boost after taking time off if you do it right with an injury. [You need to] give yourself that time to recover mentally and physically.”
“I’ve always had my best performances when I have consistent, good training. Nothing crazy. None of these insane, huge workouts. Just day in, day out, doing the work and having fun with it.”
Lastly, I thought this open letter Grace wrote back when she was with Oiselle in 2016 is very powerful and worth sharing.
Grace has her eyes set on winning the Diamond League Championships that will be held in Zurich, Switzerland on September 8th-9th. Until then she plans to keep training and will be racing the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Oregon on August 21st and the Allianz Memorial Van Damme in Brussels, Belgium on September 3rd in preparation.