By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – For part-time Big Sky resident Chelsea Conway, the Olympics have always been just on the horizon.
As a competitive race walker, a sport that isn’t well-known but boasts deep historical roots, Conway has battled injuries and bad timing, and in June of this year, she came within inches of a spot in Tokyo, placing 10th in the 20k women’s race at the Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon – just five years after she came in 45 seconds shy of making the team at the Trials in 2016. Now, the 32-year-old CEO must decide if she’ll continue the challenging path to becoming a bona fide Olympian.
Conway’s career as a race walker began in junior high school when she started track, later transitioning to race walking as a sophomore. Growing up in Rochester, New York, Conway said she was lucky to attend a high school that offered race walking since many places don’t have it.
By the end of high school, Conway had racked up three All-American finishes. While working toward her undergraduate degree from Lindsey Wilson College in Kentucky, Conway garnered three collegiate All-American finishes. After graduating, she took her skills to the national stage.
“In 2011 I qualified for the outdoor nationals, so that was my first year competing at the highest USA level,” Conway said. “I started training for the 2012 Olympic Trials, and from there, I ended up breaking my leg the February before the Olympic Trials so I was out of commission.”
At that point, Conway changed course and earned her MBA from the University of Denver to better help her manage her family’s business, Conway Beam Truck Group, a commercial truck dealership in Upstate New York.
In 2012 while she was in school, Conway’s family bought a house in Big Sky. A year later, she spent her spring break at the new family home and tore her ACL while skiing, just months after rehabbing her broken leg.
“At that point the doctors were indicating that they didn’t think I’d be able to race walk again just because between the two injuries, it was pretty tough on the sport,” Conway said.
There are two rules in Race Walking. The first is that athletes must always have one foot in contact with the ground at all times, the second is that the knee of the athlete’s advanced leg must not bend and the leg must straighten as their body passes over it.
With a torn ACL and compromised range of motion, complying with these rules was made much more difficult because she couldn’t keep her leg straight.
Conway moved back to Rochester after graduate school to immerse herself in the family business. Though she’d stepped into a larger role in Conway Beam Truck Group, Conway began training for race walking again and eventually reached the professional level for the second time in 2015, narrowly missing a chance to compete in the 2016 Olympic Trials.
“From there I was like, ‘alright I’m going to keep training through 2020 and then see how that goes,’” Conway said. “I was ramping up my training the last few years working on my distance, because all of a sudden it went from a mile to a 20k. The Olympic distance is actually a 20k and that’s a huge window to have.”
When the 2020 Olympics were delayed during the pandemic, Conway said she was on the verge of calling her training quits. However, she found out that she had a chance at qualifying for the Olympic Trials by achieving a ranking as one of the top 15 athletes in the country, as opposed to meeting the rigorous time requirement of 1:48 for completion of a 20k, and found new motivation to train.
In her prime, Conway said she would do about 70 miles a week, 90 percent of which was race walking. To fill her three hours a day of training, she incorporated cross training including swimming, biking and weight training in addition to race walking.
Conway said that during her training, she would come out to Big Sky to train at altitude and to ski as part of her cross-training regimen. Recently, the Conways finished designing and building a property in Big Sky dubbed Alpine Peak featuring state-of-the-art training facilities which include a basketball court, pool and gym.
On June 26, 2021, Conway went to Eugene, Oregon, to compete in the 20k race walk Olympic Trials, the farthest she had advanced on her road to the games. Fifteen women competed at the event and only one went on to the games currently taking place in Tokyo.
Conway said the event was high energy, calling it “the most exciting event I’ve ever been to.” Though exciting, it wasn’t without its challenges. “With the lack of events in the last year, it was really tough to get out and race and do events,” Conway said.
The 20k race took place in difficult conditions. Conway said it was extremely hot with temperatures reaching up to 115 degrees, causing start times to be moved up two hours earlier to cooler parts of the morning.
Conway said she spent a lot of time and effort trying to keep herself hydrated and cool in anticipation of the challenging conditions she faced for the race. There were hydration stations throughout the route with electrolyte drinks and gels to help the athletes stay fueled and avoid dehydration and muscle cramps.
At the end of the race, Conway ended up placing 10th out of 15 women competing for the single female race walking spot in the 2021 summer games.
With one Olympic Trial now under her belt but no spot on the team, Conway has to decide if she will stick to her rigorous training regimen for another three years and take another shot at the Olympics or if she will turn her efforts to other tasks like triathlons.
Conway currently serves as the CEO and owner of the family business, a position that requires a lot of her time and leaves less flexibility for her to travel to races and keep up her training regimen.
“I’m going to make up my mind in the next year or so if I want to keep going or if I want to pull back and go more to triathlons and have fun with my athletic pursuits,” she said.