July 27, 2012
Kim Conley and Scott Weltz set school records as Aggies. Now, they're representing UC Davis - and Team USA - at the London Olympics. Joined by Carrie Johnson, an incoming veterinary medicine student who will be competing in two single kayak sprint events, UC Davis will have a strong representation in London.
Yes, they'll be running, swimming and kayaking in the wee hours of the morning, local time. But so what? We have three Aggies in the Olympics and, thanks to the modern convenience of alarm clocks and live Web streaming, we'll be able to watch them all compete -- never mind the eight-hour time difference between Davis and London.
Two of the Olympians -- runner Kim Conley and swimmer Scott Weltz -- are former Aggie student-athletes who graduated and now serve as volunteer coaches on campus. The third -- kayaker Carrie Johnson -- will be new to the Davis campus when she starts classes Aug. 13 as a first-year student in the School of Veterinary Medicine.
Conley '09 will compete in the 5,000-meter event in track and field, while Weltz '10 will take to the pool in the 200-meter breaststroke. Johnson, a sprint kayaker, is slated to compete in two K1, or single kayak, events: the 500-meter and 200-meter races.
It's been no easy feat for Conley and Weltz, who rarely interacted while wearing Aggie blue and gold but will now be forever bound by their country's colors. Their journeys to the Olympics, although separate, are nearly identical, from grueling training regimens to the support of their family, friends and community, all of which has culminated in storied finishes that took the world by surprise.
Johnson, on the other hand, has been through this before. This will be her third Olympics, and, she told Dateline UC Davis by e-mail, the 2012 Games will be her last, as she "will not be able to give the necessary amount of focus to training and vet school simultaneously." The winner of two gold medals at last year's Pan American Games, Johnson participated in the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the 2008 Games in Beijing.
Track and field: Kim Conley
Conley's journey to London began in earnest after establishing a professional career with SRA Elite in Sacramento and turning in several breakout road-race performances in the second half of 2011. At the start of 2012, she stepped down from her role as an assistant coach with the UC Davis cross country and track and field teams to focus full-time on training.
She also enlisted the help of Drew Wartenburg, head cross country and track and field coach for the Aggies, who has coached Conley throughout the past four years. Between a more structured and consistent training program and the inspiration and confidence that she could succeed at this level, Conley was ready for the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore.
"More than anything, I think any coach can take away a strong sense of pride when established objectives and the plan to achieve them align for success," Wartenburg said. "Good coaching truly involves striking a collaborative balance with a team or individual, and that makes for great reward when the work involves a shared level of investment."
Conley and Wartenburg's four-year investment had a dramatic payoff in Conley's stunning finish at the trials. She found herself as far back as seventh place with approximately 600 meters remaining and yet, in the final stretch of the race, she surged into third place, leaning across the finish line to claim the final spot in the 5,000 meters for Team USA.
Upon graduating from UC Davis, her personal best time in the 5,000 meters was 16 minutes, 17 seconds. By 2010, she had lowered it to 15:38.13, and then lowered it again to 15:24.89 last April. The Olympic "A" standard, which Conley had never achieved, sat at 15:20; she crossed the line in the trials in 15:19.79, just four-hundredths of a second ahead of the fourth-place finisher. (To earn a spot in an Olympic event, you must earn a slot from your country and achieve the "A" standard qualifying time.)
"Kim has truly grown into an athlete who approaches her running with a professional mindset without losing the joy that she finds through running," Wartenburg said. "That sort of approach is healthy and remains a true gift."
Swimming: Scott Weltz
UC Davis former men's swimming coach Pete Motekaitis, now an assistant with the women's team, has seen the same transformation in Weltz, whom Motekaitis still coaches.
In 2007-08, Weltz sat out NCAA competition, opting instead to train for the Beijing Games. He qualified for the trials in four events, but finished no better than 30th (in the 400-meter individual medley). He placed 38th in the 200-meter breaststroke -- the very same event in which he earned a trip to London in 2012.
Between the 2008 trials and now, Motekaitis changed Weltz's basic weekly training plan from six days of workout and a Sunday rest day, to a more unique system of five days of training followed by a day of rest. Motekaitis doesn't know of anyone else in the world preparing this way -- gaining 18 percent more time in the weight room and 18 percent more days off.
"His success took seven years of growth physically and mentally," Motekaitis said. "His foundation of success started when he first came to UC Davis and has continued on since then. Six months ago, he asked why we didn't do these workouts when he was an undergrad. My comment was that, three or four years ago, he was unable to handle the training velocities that we designed, both physically and mentally."
Weltz has since shown that he is more than ready to take on the challenges. The two-time Big West Swimmer of the Year, while at UC Davis, stunned the world in Omaha, Neb., when he won the 200 breaststroke, outlasting heavy favorites Brendan Hansen and Eric Shanteau to touch the wall in 2 minutes, 9:01 seconds.
Hansen is the former world-record holder, while Shanteau holds the U.S. record -- and yet it's Weltz who will stand on the starting block with the fifth-best time in the world on Monday (July 31).
At the trials, Weltz found himself in fifth place at the midway point of the race, but posted a 100-meter split time of 1:03.42 to surge into second place behind Shanteau. Weltz delivered a blistering final stretch of 33.13 seconds to win.
"The emotions that I felt in Omaha were due more to the length and nature of our relationship," Motekaitis said. "Scott has been with me for seven years and together we have done so much and experienced so many highs and lows. Success for an athlete in achieving any goal is always a coaching highlight. I'm very proud of the way Scott swam the race and how he handled the rush of press and attention."
Sprint kayaking: Carrie Johnson
Win or lose, Johnson will leave London for UC Davis on Aug. 11, one day after the 500-meter final. On Aug. 13, she begins her first day of classes in the School of Veterinary Medicine. She has chosen the small-animal track, and has already been volunteering at a veterinary practice in Chula Vista, near San Diego. (She has been training in Chula Vista, at one of the nation's three Olympic Training Centers, since 2002.)
Dean Michael Lairmore was the first to inform University Communications of Johnson's making the Olympics. "Another Olympian -- incoming SVM student!" he boasted in an e-mail.
At the time, UC Davis had already reported the good news about former student-athletes Conley and Weltz. But Johnson, on the other hand, had not even started school yet at UC Davis. She did her undergraduate work in her hometown, at UC San Diego, receiving a bachelor's degree in biochemistry in 2009.
"I am very excited to be able to start vet school at UC Davis," she said. "I have already received a lot of support, and I look forward to becoming part of the Davis community.
"I am very lucky that my parents (from San Diego) and my grandmother (from Napa) are moving my things up to Davis so that I can be ready to start school as soon as I get back."
She e-mailed from Pusiano, in northern Italy, where she is training in advance of the Games. She traveled to London last weekend for team processing -- and got in some paddling on the kayak venue, the Eton Dorney Rowing Centre at Dorney Lake, about 25 miles west of London.
She returned to Pusiano and heads back to London on Aug. 4. She will miss the opening and closing ceremonies. ("This year it did not fit in with the way I needed to train and then starting school.")
She participated in the opening and closing ceremonies in Athens (2004) and in the closing event in Beijing (2008). In both those Games, she made it to the K1 500-meter semifinals, falling just short of the finals, finishing 10th overall both times. She also reached the semifinals in the K4 500-meter in Athens.
Last October, at the Pan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, she turned in a time 1 minute, 54.24 seconds, to win the K1 500-meter -- guaranteeing the United States a berth in the London Games, though not necessarily for her.
On April 20, in Oklahoma City, she made sure she would be sitting in that kayak, by placing first in the U.S. Olympic trials with a time of 1:57.76. The win came with an option to race in the K1 200-meter event in London -- and she is taking that option.
The K1 200-meter is new to the Olympics this year, but not new to Johnson -- who won the event at the Pan American Games last year and at the U.S. trials this year.
In two World Cup events this year, she placed ninth and 22nd in the 200 meters, and 15th and 21st in the 500 meters.
She had been a gymnast for 11 years when she sustained a broken arm, around the time she was ready to move into another sport, she said in a USA Today preview video for the 2012 Olympics. "It just kind of worked out that I found paddling at that time," in the San Diego Junior Lifeguard Program, which had branched out into kayaking.
"Obviously the sports are very different, but there's a lot of correlation. In gymnastics you learn a lot of body awareness and body control, and ... you gain a lot of strength, and those helped me a lot in paddling. Kayaking is a very technical sport, and having the body awareness, being able to make technical changes when my coaches tell me to, was a big advantage."
Lairmore, in congratulating Johnson when she made the 2012 Olympic team, wrote in an e-mail that her new journey in life in the School of Veterinary Medicine "will be challenging, but not as rough as kayaking."
Aggies in the spotlight
All three Aggies have had their fair share of time in the spotlight, in print, online and on video, as much for their athletic achievements as for their personal stories.
Johnson draws attention because of her battle with Crohn's disease, an inflammatory disorder of the intestines -- a recurring condition, so far incurable, that kept Johnson from training in the 2003 and 2009 seasons. At other times, like now, medication keeps her illness under control -- and her paddling keeps her in control in U.S. kayak sprints.
Conley's and Weltz's paths to London have been chronicled by The New York Times, The Davis Enterprise, Flotrack, USA Swimming and more.
NBC features Johnson in three videos, while websites and newspapers galore used the now-iconic images of Conley's open-mouthed realization of what she had accomplished in the trials. Several news outlets reported on Motekaitis' leap over barriers and past security to hug Weltz after his win.
"The Olympic idea of the youth of the world coming together in sport has always appealed to me," Motekaitis said. "I feel proud that an Aggie swimmer is part of Team USA and will participate in the Olympic experience."
Amanda Piechowski of Athletics Communications, and Mitchel Benson and Dave Jones of University Communications contributed to this report.