DES MOINES, IOWA (22-Jun) — You would be forgiven if you didn’t recall the 800m results of Kate Grace and Michael Rutt at last year’s USA Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore.
Grace, who like Rutt trains with the grass roots New Jersey-New York Track Club, finished sixth in the first heat of the preliminary round and was out of the competition on only the second day of the meet. Rutt did better, making it to the semi-finals. But, he finished 8th (and last) in the second heat, and also headed home early.
What a difference a year makes. Both athletes have broken through to a new level and have made Sunday’s finals at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships here at Drake Stadium. Grace, 24, who competed for Yale University during her NCAA career, finished third in the first heat in a career best.96 behind only Olympic finalist Alysia Montano and world junior champion Ajee’ Wilson. She was clearly excited with her recent progress, which includes three marks of .14 or better during the 2013 outdoor season.
“This time last year at the Trials I didn’t even get out of the prelims,” she told Race Results Weekly last night. “I was a complete nervous wreck. So, I just feel completely composed. It’s great to have such a good feeling.”
Rutt, 25, who came out of Connecticut College and made the final of the 2012 IAAF World Indoor Championships, showed a brilliant finish in a stacked second heat in the semi-finals, finishing fourth in.43, just off of his career best.
“I made it out of the heat of death,” he told Race Results Weekly.
To get to this level, both athletes have faced the same primary obstacle –thin financial support– but also have the same secret weapon: one of the best coaches ever to hold a stopwatch, Frank Gagliano. Coach “Gags,” who guided student-athletes at Georgetown University for 18 years and coached Olympians like Steve Holman and Rich Kenah, built the NJ-NY Track Club from scratch. With financial support from the New York Road Runners, Gagliano has been able to nurture Grace and Rutt into top class athletes.
Standing in the coach’s section of Drake Stadium, Gagliano’s booming voice can be heard by anyone within 50 meters shouting to his athletes. With 100 meters to go in Grace’s race, Gagliano was in full voice.
“‘Hit it!'” Grace said Gagliano shouted to her. “He screamed ‘hit it’ with 100 to go. It’s kind of like a Pavlovian response to just go for it.”
Rutt, too, said Gagliano’s voice lifted him during his semi-final.
“I can always hear Gags,” Rutt said, his voice full of gratitude. “No matter where I am on the track I think he’s right here,” he said pointing to his ear. “He says, ‘lift!’ That’s like his go-to: ‘lift!’ As soon as you hear that, something you hear everyday in practice, it’s kind of like second nature. You switch to high knees coming down the stretch. It’s good.”
Although Grace has a modest sponsorship from women’s sports apparel company Oiselle (she wears their distinctive black and green uniform), Rutt is unsponsored, wearing the white, black and blue kit of the NJ-NY Track Club. Both athletes are extremely proud of their club, which boasts six more athletes who will be in the finals here: Ashley Higginson, Nicol Traynor and Travis Mahoney(steeplechase), Heather Wilson (1500m), and Delilah DiCrescenzo and Julie Culley (5000m). Three other athletes from the club who performed well –Renee Tomlin (1500m), Brian Gagnon (800m) and LaTavia Thomas (800m)– did not make the finals.
“We’re not just some random group,” Rutt said passionately. “We didn’t start this as a hobby. This is our living. We’re here to make teams, win races, compete internationally. And, the fact that we’re all doing that, to have Coach Gags on our side, it’s amazing. He’s obviously the best in the world at middle distance coaching.”
Both athletes will have a tough time making the top-3 in Sunday’s finals which will choose the national teams for the IAAF World Championships in Moscow in August. Grace probably has the better chance to get third behind the two most dominant women in the event, Alysia Montano and Brenda Martinez, but will have to beat Wilson and Olympian Geena Gall. Rutt is facing a loaded field, including two Olympic finalists –Nick Symmonds and Duane Solomon. He’s not deterred, however.
“I’ve just got to get ready for,” Rutt concluded. “Anything can happen.”
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The 800m finals at the USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships will take place(women) and (men) and will be shown live on NBC.