About two decades before crossing the finish line first in the 800 meters at this month’s Olympic Trials, Kate Grace was already on the move.

Maybe the children’s 1-kilometer race near her home in Santa Monica wasn’t the true start of her running career, but it was the foundation for a fitness-filled lifestyle that prepared her for the opportunity of a lifetime.

Grace, now 27, who grew up in Santa Monica, earned a trip to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro with the win in her signature event at the trials in Eugene, Oregon.

“Even though I had not made a U.S. team [previously], my training has been going really well,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s been a consistent building of momentum. In a weird way, I feel like this was a step I was ready for, and I thought might happen — not winning, but making the team. I was ready to do that.”

The victory gave Grace the chance to reflect on her upbringing in Santa Monica, which played a big role in her development into one of the country’s most talented middle-distance runners.

Grace spent plenty of time outside Santa Monica after moving to the coastal city from West L.A. as a young child, attending what was then known as University Elementary School (now UCLA Lab School) in Westwood and finishing her secondary education at the all-girls Marlborough School in the Hancock Park area of Los Angeles.

But Santa Monica, which Grace found to be conducive to an active lifestyle, was where she blossomed as an athlete.

Grace started running seriously as a way to condition for high school soccer. She’d go from her house to San Vicente Boulevard and head west towards the beach, then jog along the bluffs at Palisades Park before returning home on a roughly 4-mile trip.

She returned often to the bluffs after making the transition from soccer to track, stopping to collect her thoughts before important events.

“My mom would take me down to the cliffs the morning before a race and just have me stand there and breathe,” she said. “The idea of being able to so quickly get to the beach and have that experience of being calm … I loved growing up there.”

That love transcended running. Grace and her sister would walk from their home to the former Robeks juicery on Montana Avenue. She’d meet friends on Third Street Promenade. And she enjoyed the community vibe of a city that is situated close to myriad events and attractions in Greater Los Angeles.

Grace parlayed her standout running accolades at Marlborough into an excellent career at Yale University, where she was a repeat All-America honoree in track and field and cross-country. She had been chasing a spot on Team USA ever since.

Before this month’s 800 final at the University of Oregon, Grace wrote messages of encouragement to herself. “dare to be great” was one. “I believe” was another. And finally: “When I am prepared, I always expect to win.”

Grace won in come-from-behind fashion with a career-best time of 1 minute 59.10 seconds, avoiding a dramatic entanglement late in the race that caused contender Alysia Montano to fall to the ground. Ajee’ Wilson and Chrishuna Williams took second and third, respectively.

Grace, who had never reached the podium in a national race, showed little emotion as she caught her breath at the finish line.

“It almost hasn’t sunk in,” she said.

jeff@smdp.com

Photo credit: Justin Britton

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