Kate Grace was a good club soccer player at the Marlborough School, an all-girls school in Hancock Park, and she took up cross-country only for conditioning and to help fill out the JV team. Jimmie Grant, the Mustangs' track and field coach, was intrigued by the Santa Monica resident's gait and fluidity but wondered why she had a habit of holding back before the finish line.
"One of the top runners on my team was a good friend of hers and Kate wouldn't pass her, wouldn't beat her in the races. She'd just get behind her and let her friend go on and win the race," Grant said. "We got to the league finals and I walked up to her and said, 'You might as well go ahead and do it. It's OK to go by her and it's better to go by her now so she can get used to it.'"
Her rivals are becoming accustomed to seeing her pass them in a blur.
Grace, 27, earned a berth on the Rio Olympic team by winning the 800-meter race at the U.S. Olympic track and field trials Monday in a personal-best time of 1 minute, 59.10 seconds. Her performance was overshadowed by the stunning mishap that caused Alysia Montano to fall and Brenda Martinez to stumble, but Grace's patience in finding a path and her speed in moving up from sixth at the 600-meter mark were carryovers from Marlborough, where she was part of 400-meter and 1,600-meter relay teams that set what are still school records.
"Her nickname was Amazing Grace. She was quite a special kid, sort of once in a lifetime," said David Collicutt, her soccer coach and now the school's athletic director. "Just a real natural talent."
It took years for her talent and training to mesh. She improved her times at Yale — she graduated in 2011 — and while she trained with a group in New Jersey, and she qualified for the 2012 Olympic trials but was eliminated in the first round of the 800 and the semifinals of the 1,500. Plantar fasciitis derailed her in 2013 and a difficult-to-diagnose tear of a toe tendon left her in limbo a year ago. Her friends said she didn't have to continue to torture herself, that they'd understand if she quit.
"Even though when it first happened I said if I wasn't better by April I'm done, when someone else said it to me it brought up all these emotions," she said Tuesday. "At first it was a very low point and then an incredible determination that no, I believe that there is something more and that I need to get my training on straight, my life on straight, and when that happens, things will come together. And they did."
She moved to the Sacramento area last summer to join the NorCal Distance project, training with five other female runners and coach Drew Wartenburg. In late May she ran a personal-best 4:05.65 in the 1,500 and qualified to run that event in the trials, but she said Tuesday she'll skip the 1,500 to focus on the Olympic 800. "I would love to run the 1,500 here. Part of me hurts to not do that," she said. "But if my ultimate goal is Rio, then staying here and going through the whole gauntlet of rounds would not be along that path."
She was happy with her effort Monday at Hayward Field but sad about the misfortune that befell Montano and Martinez. Her race, she said, "matched with what I felt, which is that I felt very strong and was looking for a place to move but I was also kind of gaining momentum in that last 200 to 150 as the falls started to happen. My heart goes out to the women who fell. They're amazing competitors."
Grant, who texted her after her 2:00.94 semifinal run to declare she'd win the final, said he saw her jumping around a bit too much Monday, as she used to do. He was worried because he remembered a race in which she had moved too much and lost to someone who had stayed on the inside.
"This time the sea parted for her and she just took advantage of it," he said. "I think sometimes because she knows she can run those runners down, she sits back and waits for it to happen."
Waiting to congratulate her were her mother, health and fitness educator Kathy Smith, and her father, Steve, who oversees culture-oriented bike tours in Vietnam for Grasshopper Adventures. "They always wanted me to do well but it always came from me," she said. They supported her when she chose to travel during summers of her high school years and played piano and soccer instead of narrowing her life to running. "They were a million miles away from being that kind of overbearing family," Collicutt said. "They were very relaxed and they never pushed her into a lot of things."
Reminded of her reluctance to beat that school friend in her first cross-country ventures, Grace laughed and said she had attended that woman's wedding last summer. "Track or cross-country had been their sport and I was the new one to join and I didn't want to change the power dynamics," Grace said. "It took some convincing that I could push for the win and still be friends after the fact, and I still am friends with them."
That's a win-win situation if ever there was one.