Seth Weil was a walk-on, a newcomer to rowing when he joined the UC Davis sport club in 2005. On Aug. 7, the 2011 graduate competes in the Olympics for the first time.
Kim Conley ran headlong to UC Davis in 2004, recruited out of high school by Aggie coaches for cross country and track and field. Today, the 2009 graduate is running straight to her second Olympics.
They are the only Aggies we know of who are competing in the 2016 Summer Games. The Opening Ceremony is scheduled for Friday, Aug. 5, in Maracanã Stadium, Rio de Janeiro.
Weil, 29, proudly says he’s rowed for UC Davis for more than half of his career to date, spanning 11 years, since he was a freshman. Hard to imagine how he ever got started, given that he had not played high school sports and had arrived on campus weighing 280 pounds, admittedly overweight. But, at 6-foot-7, he had caught the attention of someone who suggested he check out rowing (in which long arms and long legs equal long strokes).
Before he knew it, he was out the door at 5 a.m. six days a week for club practice at the Port of Sacramento — all the while completing a double major (aerospace science and engineering, and mechanical engineering). Speaking by phone recently from Princeton, New Jersey, where he trains now with U.S. Rowing, he credited “really good friends and teammates” with helping him keep up with his rowing and studies at UC Davis. He also lost about 70 pounds.
“I just kept trying to push the rowing as fast as I could go” — Seth Weil
Weil recalled his first competition as “phenomenal”: UC Davis defeated Sacramento State in a freshman race, and, afterward, according to tradition, the Sac State crew handed over their jerseys. He still has that jersey, and every other jersey he’s won over the years.
“I just kept trying to push the rowing as fast as I could go,” he said. “I never thought about the Olympics or even a career in rowing, until, at some point, I realized it might be possible — this might happen.”
After graduating, Weil ventured east to train at the New York Athletic Club and the Penn Athletic Club Rowing Association in Philadelphia, until, in 2013, U.S. Rowing came calling. He’s been a member of the senior national team every year since, rowing primarily in a four-man boat, no coxswain. He’s a three-time gold medalist in men’s-4 world cup competitions, in 2013, ’15 and ’16, and won gold in the four and pair events at the 2013 U.S. Rowing National Championships.
He won U.S. Rowing’s Male Athlete of the Year award in 2015, as voted by athletes and coaches. They had seen Weil help the men’s-4 crew battle back last September in the World Rowing Championships in Aiguebelette, France, after two of his teammates had fallen ill. One of them, Charlie Cole, pulled out of the semifinal, and the men’s-4 with a substitute came in fifth — which put the team in the B final. Then, with all of the regulars on board, Weil and team rebounded to a first-place finish, not a championship finish in the A final but a finish that guaranteed a spot for the United States in the men’s-4 event in the Olympics.
Still, rowing officials continued to evaluate all of the athletes, until announcing June 20 who would fill the boat in Rio: Weil, Cole, Matt Miller and Henrik Rummel. They’re training at a distance of 30 to 45 kilometers (18½ to 28 miles) a day; they’ll race on a 2,000-meter course.
You’ll recognize Weil from his bushy beard that has many in the U.S. rowing community saying, “Fear the beard!” While the beard is relatively new, he’s got another trademark that his UC Davis classmates may remember: flip-flops, all day, every day.
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Weil opted for windsurfing and sailing over organized sports, and it wasn’t until he got to UC Davis and hooked up with the rowing club that he learned what it meant to be part of a team. That experience, he said, is a bedrock of his career.
He leaves this Friday (July 29) for Rio, and gave this outlook of the competition: “It’ll be a dogfight. It’s the Olympics. Our goal is to put together our best performance.”
Results update: With a top-three finish in their preliminary heat, Weil and his teammates secured a spot in the semifinals on Wednesday (Aug. 10). See separate story.
Who can forget the image of the wide-open-mouthed Conley after the 5,000-meter final in the 2012 Olympic trials, at the moment she realized she had secured the last berth for the London Games? She had been in fifth place coming into the final stretch, an estimated 35 meters behind the two leaders and approximately 20 to 25 meters behind the women in third and fourth place.
“I thought it was over but I just couldn’t give up on the dream,” she told a national television audience after the race. She surged into fourth and then leaned into third place from the outside with barely a foot to go — taking the third and final Olympic berth by four-hundredths of a second.
“I had hoped that qualifying for Team USA this summer would have been a much smoother experience than in 2012,” she told Dateline UC Davis by email. But, then, in her primary event, the 10,000 meters at the trials, “I got stepped on and lost my shoe.” She would end up dropping out to save herself for the 5,000 meters.
“I consider my UC Davis experience as an incubator for much of the success that I have enjoyed thus far in my professional running career" — Kim Conley
Conley won her 5,000-meter heat in 15:40.04 on July 7 and ran 15:10.62 in the July 10 final to earn a trip to the Rio Games. Once again, she found herself coming from behind — but this time without drama at the finish line. She ran third for much of the early part of the race, slipped to fifth, then moved up to fourth with one lap to go. She turned on the speed, running the last 400 meters in 68.21 seconds to take third place in the race at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon.
“I consider my UC Davis experience as an incubator for much of the success that I have enjoyed thus far in my professional running career,” the 30-year-old said. “I grew as a person and athlete during my five years at UC Davis.”
Her collegiate career stands among the best in Aggie history. Her time of 16:17.51 set at the 2008 NCAA Track and Field West Regional in the 5,000 meters stands as a school record, and her mark of 4:22.17 in the 1,500 meters ranks her No. 2 on UC Davis’ all-time ledger.
Having earned a degree in exercise biology, she thought she was headed to physical therapy school. But, after graduating in 2009, “I decided that I still had unfinished business with distance running and I needed to explore my potential.”
She chose Davis as home base, largely to maintain consistency in her training and daily life. She also coached for UC Davis for five seasons, as a volunteer some years, as a paid assistant in others.
“After progressing in the sport from 2009 to 2011, I could see my work was paying off," Conley said. "Still, approaching 2012 I had yet to establish myself firmly on the national, let alone international, running scene, and while I thought I had a chance at an Olympic berth that year, my achievement still came as a surprise to many.”
In London, she placed 12th in her heat with a then-personal best of 15:14.48, but did not advance.
Four years later, she and Drew Wartenburg, her coach who is now her husband, have started the NorCal Distance Project, a group of professional runners based in Sacramento. She doesn’t train or live in Davis any longer, but continues to rely on Paul Salitsky for sport psychology (he’s a lecturer in the Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior) and keeps in contact with retired coach Dee Vochatzer, “a person who remains an important figure in my running career.”
“The ability to study, compete and even coach on campus at UC Davis taught me many valuable lessons that will always shape my dedicated, patient and relentless approach to competitive running,” Conley said. “I feel fortunate for the relationships I made, and continue to enjoy, from my Davis experience and will always run as an Aggie.”
Intercollegiate Athletics contributed to this report.