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Conley still has Olympic, hometown touch

Published: Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 9:25 p.m.

She’s no longer “Kim Conley.” She knows this. She might even want to change the name on her birth certificate, driver’s license and credit cards. She’s “Kim Conley Olympian”, as if Olympian has become her last name. She’s not David and Melanie’s daughter anymore. She’s Olympian. She’s international, global in scope, the cache behind that word so powerful, it guarantees her an automatic friendly introduction and acceptance.

“Someone was always outside the entrance of the Olympic Village every day,” said the 2004 Montgomery High graduate. “They would ask for your autograph. They were professional autograph seekers.”

Those in the audience Saturday night at the Heart and Sole athletic footwear store in Santa Rosa weren’t merely signature collectors.

When asked by a store employee how many in attendance were active runners, about half of the crowd of 40 raised their hands. The others? To see, to ask, to interact with an Olympic athlete, it’s not like we have one of these strolling through Sonoma County every week.

Especially one with a President Obama story.

“What’s your event?” Obama asked Conley after the London Games. USA’s Olympic team was at the White House at the President’s invitation.

“The 5,000 meters,” Conley replied.

“So you can run all day then?”

“I try,” Conley said.

And then First Lady Michelle Obama gave Conley a hug.

“Now that was cool,” Conley said.

Make the USA Olympic team, you will shake hands with the President and hug his wife. Make the USA Olympic team and nothing is out of bounds.

“I was asked if I have an Olympic (rings) tattoo and if I ever met Michael Phelps,” Conley told the audience. “The answer is no to both.”

Make the USA Olympic team as a track athlete and the life of struggle and stress so common to the sport vanishes.

“I called myself a professional runner before the Olympics,” Conley said, “but it’s hard to call yourself a professional if you don’t make any money.”

Conley now is under contract with New Balance. The rewards of that association go beyond the monetary. At the shoe manufacturer’s request, Conley has given a lot of speeches since the Olympics, especially in Michigan and Massachusetts.

“It began to bother me I hadn’t delivered one in my hometown,” Conley told the audience.

It is not an idle commitment for Conley. Track athletes form life-long bonds with teammates, the suffering of the training being the SuperGlue that binds and holds fast.

“Last night we had my annual Christmas tea party,” Conley said.

That would be all the runners on Montgomery’s 2000 state champion cross country team, the only Empire team to win a state cross country title. Track and field require humility, the discipline and sweat that extensive. And a Christmas tea party fits the mold. In Conley’s case, especially, the next time she acts arrogant will be the first time she acts arrogant. She was never Sonoma County’s golden child in track the way Sara Bei or Julia Stamps or Jenny Aldridge were. Conley was good, very good, and she was always nipping at the heels of greatness, only to be denied by bad luck or circumstance.

“I came down with food poisoning one year and someone clipped me the next year and knocked off my shoe,” said Conley, describing the two NCAA regional track meets that would have put her in the nationals, where she would have felt more than capable of placing high.

“I even ran seven laps with my shoe off in that regional (before abandoning),” she said, trying to find a way to accomplish the impossible.

Given those setbacks, Conley’s goal was just to make the USA Olympic team. When she made that commitment four years ago, her best time in the 5,000 was 16:17. The Olympic “A” standard was almost a full minute faster, 15:20.

“I definitely had my doubts,” Conley said.

But now, as she awoke this morning, Conley’s best time four years later is 15:14.48. She shaved more than 62 seconds off the time she posted her senior year at UC Davis.

“I think it’s pretty cool,” she said, “to say I posted my PR (personal record) at the Olympics.”

Conley didn’t make it out of the qualifying heat into the 5,000 finals, finishing 12th out of 18. That didn’t discourage her.

“It just made me more hungry,” Conley said.

If the late 20s and early 30s are indeed the time in which runners reach their physical peak, Conley at 26 sees her future ahead of her, not behind. She will compete in the U.S. Cross Country Championships in February in the hopes of running for the United States in the Worlds in March. And then there’s the 2016 Rio Olympics.

“I’m just seeing what’s going to happen,” Conley said. One day she might take her Davis degree in exercise biology and coach. She might spend time as a marathoner. This might happen and one day that might happen and such is the calmness Conley now embraces. She sees the world opening up for her. She is going with the flow.

Which makes Paul Salitsky’s story that much more intriguing. Salitsky is a UC Davis sports psychologist who worked with Conley. When Conley graduated in 2009, Salitsky asked Conley to sign a poster.

“Why would you want my autograph?” Conley said.

“Just wait ... one day ... you’ll see.”

That was the first time Conley was ever asked for her autograph.

And since the Olympics?

Conley blushed. “Hundreds,” she said.

Where does it go from here? She doesn’t know, but if one day she answers the autograph question with “thousands,” we’ll know that the London Olympics were just the appetizer to the main course.

And at this point, who would bet against it?

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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