Kim Conley has made two Olympic teams in the most unlikely ways.
In 2012, she entered as a rookie looking for a shoe contract and maybe a top-five finish, but in one of the most dramatic Olympic Trials races in recent memory, she moved from fifth place to third in the bell lap, making the team by .04 seconds, as well as getting the Olympic qualifying time by .21.
Then in 2016, she targeted the 10,000 meters, but during lap eight, she got clipped and her shoe came off. After stopping to put her spike back on, she tried to catch up, but dropped out in lap 21 when it was clear she’d never make the podium, deciding to save herself for another try in the 5,000 meters. It was an event she had not prepared for, but made it through the first round, then placed third in the final to make the Rio Games.
“My mentality was just so different. In 2012 it was just, ‘Oh, I’m so happy to be here and I have this crazy outside shot,’ and then in 2016 I felt a lot more pressure,” Conley says. “In 2016 I felt like I was in the middle of a storm, but after the 10K I relaxed and started really enjoying the experience again. I still had all that fitness that I brought in for the 10,000 and was able to bring it all together in the 5,000.”
In 2021, Conley comes to the Trials knowing better than anyone that anything can happen there. On paper, she may (once again) look like an unlikely candidate for Team USA—her 15:05.20 in the 5,000 meters is ranked 11th out of the qualifiers and her 31:40.25 is 16th in the crowded 10,000-meter field that is set to run in two separate heats. She would need one of the top-three fastest times, and she would need that time to be under the Olympic standard of 31:25.
She has until Monday to declare which event she’ll race, but she is unconcerned about running the Olympic standard at the Trials, given the depth of the competition. She’s used the early season to race frequently, most recently at the Portland Track Festival, where she ran 15:22.51 in the 5,000 meters.
“I’m more concerned with looking at how the fields are shaping up and where I’m feeling the most confident that I can contend for the highest possible finish in either one of those events,” Conley says. “It’s about trying to get on a podium.”
Hometown: Flagstaff, Arizona
Event: 5,000 meters (15:05.20) and 10,000 meters (31:35.88)
Training tip: Yes, you too could become a two-time Olympian even if you’re slightly dehydrated. After a consultation with a sport performance nutritionist in 2020, Conley was told she needed more liquid in her life, which was a sort of stunning realization for a lifelong athlete.
“The biggest and most obvious thing the nutritionist found, which I was a little taken aback when it came to my attention, was that I wasn’t really hydrated enough and I needed to get more electrolytes. On top of the coffee in the morning, the kombucha at lunch, and tea in the afternoon, I was maybe drinking two glasses of water. Now I’m pretty much always drinking 40 to 50 ounces of water a day. At first, I gained water weight, but I have been feeling really good.”
Favorite workout: A tried-and-true session that she’s done for many years is a watchless workout. She does the entire thing by feel instead of time. Run one mile on the track at the effort of a 5,000-meter race, proceed to two miles at tempo pace, then a hard closing mile on the track. After it’s over, you get to see your splits.
“I always run faster than I thought I was capable of and so it’s a mental boost,” Conley says. “You realize, ‘Oh, I’m fitter than I thought I was, and now I’m going to bring that to a race.’”
The worst part of race day: The distance events at many track meets are usually at night. So, as they say, the waiting is the hardest part. Conley would prefer something around 11 a.m., but she doesn’t get a vote.
The best part of race day: The final stretch of the competition.
“Coming off the final turn and being in a heated battle with somebody all the way to the finish,” she says.
Trials success (aside from the obvious goal of making Team USA): Time and place won’t matter as much if Conley feels she did everything in her power to make the team.
“I think if I can just leave my heart out on the track and walk away knowing, ‘Man, I gave that everything I had and I was able to give more than I’ve ever been able to give before,’ then I would walk away feeling pretty happy.”
Last words to herself on the starting line: Conley doesn’t have a particular mantra she leans on before races. “I don’t feel like they usually work for me,” she says. And no music, either. “I can’t do pump-up music. It’s like my natural state is already too pumped up—I learned 10 years ago working with a sport psychologist. Talking about what’s an optimal level of arousal to go into a race and we learned the music tipped it too far over for me.”
Pandemic pastimes: During the pandemic, Conley and her husband and coach, Drew Wartenburg, decided to move from Sacramento to Flagstaff, Arizona, where they had been spending large chunks of each year for altitude training. They watched a fair amount of Seinfeld, and Conley, already an avid reader, upped her intake and recommends Why Fish Don’t Exist, by Lulu Miller (“part biography, part memoir, part scientific adventure…a wondrous fable about how to persevere in a world where chaos will always prevail.”)
Conley also dabbled in mountain biking, until she took a “pretty big spill” and decided to put her new hobby on hold.
“Now the bike sits in the garage and we’ll save it for retirement,” she says.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series leading up to the 2021 U.S.A. Track & Field Olympic Trials, highlighting many of the top athletes contending for the U.S. Olympic team. You can find all of our coverage here.