By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
EUGENE, OR (03-Jul) -- If Kate Grace had a theme song at these Olympic Trials, it would be the 1970's hit "Takin' Care of Business" by Bachman-Turner Overdrive. Through the first two rounds of the women's 800m here at Hayward Field, Grace has run 2:01.36 and 2:00.94 to advance and continue her quest for an Olympic spot.
PHOTO: Kate Grace lining up at the 2013 USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa (photo by Chis Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)
Business as usual for the upbeat 27-year-old.
"I did what had to be done, did what had to be done," she said following Saturday's semi-final. "I was nervous; it's nerve-wracking going through the rounds. I'm happy to be done with that... Just taking care of business."
In the first two days of competition, Grace has had a specific goal in mind to maneuver her way into the July 4th final. Confident in her ability to close, she powered away for the prelim win in 2:01.36 after avoiding potential trouble when she tangled with Oregon's Raevyn Rogers.
A mere 19 hours later Grace stayed patient as Ajee' Wilson made her move at the front of the semi-final, holding a firm grasp on second place in 2:00.94. Both days she placed in automatic qualifier positions, eliminating the possibility of any heartbreak.
"I knew it was going to go out fast and the plan was to get out a little harder but once I saw it was going out honest and comfortable, I guess I was in the back, but I knew I was going to be strong in the end. In a way, just learning from yesterday, I wanted to stay out of the fray," she said. "I felt strong in the end."
Grace hasn't just felt strong here at Hayward Field. She's felt supremely strong all season long thanks to her training under Drew Wartenburg as part of the NorCal Distance Project. On paper, 2016 has been a breakthrough year for the Yale alum, running a PB 4:05.65 for the 1500m to win the Hoka One One Middle Distance Classic (at Occidental College) and followed that up with a 4:05.93 win at the Portland Track Festival. Grace has also run sub-2:01.36 four times, including a 2:00.05 win last month in Portland.
All this has come after Grace missed last year's USA Championships due to a foot injury, a small tear in the plantar plate. She now says she's in the best shape of her life.
"I do [think so]. I just feel like I really like NorCal's training, it works well for me," she said. NorCal Distance Project is based in Sacramento, Calif., and includes athletes like 2012 Olympian Kim Conley and 2015 USA Indoor 1000m champion Lauren Wallace. "We've been working our butts off all year, and I definitely feel the effects of that."
Grace has recently shifted from strength to speed, sharpening up with speed sessions mimicking the sub-2:00 pace it'll take to finish in the top three. In addition to the confidence that comes with those workouts, Grace feels at ease off the track.
"I have a great support system right now and I've learned how to really use that, everything from my team, my coach, my sponsor Oiselle who has stuck with me," she said. "And also I think coming back from injury lit a fire under me last year and I'm pumped to be racing right now. I feel like I've found my mojo again this year."
While she's entered in both the 800m and 1500m, Grace said her primary focus at the moment is the former. She wouldn't go so far as to call the 1500m a backup plan, but was clearly set on the 800m. It's an event she holds close to her heart.
"Intuition. I like the 800m, I feel comfortable and have done it more in championship-style settings, so I feel like I have a little bit more experience. And there's something inside me that says I want to go for the 800m," she said.
Now that the prelims and semi's are behind her, she can relax until the final on Monday. In the time between races she plans to sit down with Wartenburg and concoct a fool-proof plan that'll get her to the medal stand. She'll also relax with family and friends.
The quick turnaround and intensity is nothing new to her.
"We've been practicing it. When I ran the Portland Track Festival (last month), I did something like that where I ran hard the day before, and then ran a 200, practicing quick, close rounds. It's good cause we had a very set goal for the last 18 hours of relaxing, recovering, and now I'm happy to be done and have a few days to rest," she said on Saturday.
In the final, Grace knows anything can happen. And she's prepared for that. Fast, slow, tactical, or aggressive, Grace is ready.
"Looking back to where I was a year ago, it's crazy to me to see how far I've come. It's exciting," she said.