Joe Davidson

How an Oak Ridge runner made area history at state track finals – with a ‘bold’ move

Oak Ridge's Maddy Denner, right, runs to a first-place finish in the 1,600 meters final at the CIF State Track and Field Championships on Saturday, June 1, 2018 in Clovis.
Oak Ridge's Maddy Denner, right, runs to a first-place finish in the 1,600 meters final at the CIF State Track and Field Championships on Saturday, June 1, 2018 in Clovis. ezamora@fresnobee.com

The defining moment for this senior trio went beyond where they stood on the victory stand.

Twin sisters Maddy and Elena Denner of Oak Ridge High School and Olivia O'Keeffe of Davis aren't just rivals in track and field. They're allies and pals as they champion their event, pulling for each other even if they badly want to beat one another.

They chat before races, embrace after them and vow a lasting friendship through college and beyond. On Saturday in the 100th CIF State championships at Veterans Memorial Stadium in the heart of the searing-hot valley, Maddy and Elena made history, and the girl Maddy and Elena beat in the 1,600-meter run and some three hours later in the 3,200 came away all the more impressed.

Maddy repeated in the grueling four-lap race in 98-degree temperatures, winning in 4 minutes, 42.77, a personal best, and her smile spoke of her relief and pride. She used her patented kick with some 600 meters to go to overtake O'Keeffe, who was second in 4:43.69. Elena was fourth in 4:45.49 during the most anticipated girls event of the weekend. Fourteen of the top 25 runners in the country, based on times, were in this race.

Elena in the 3,200 won in 10:10.32, and Maddy was second in 10:11.56, a remarkable double feat considering the temperaturers, competition and the setting with an overflow crowd that provided energy amid cheers. O'Keeffe was third in the 3,200 in 10:12.56 in giving the region a resounding double-race showing.

Maddy became the area's first repeat state champion in any race since Lindsay Hyatt's four titles in the 800 for Placer from 1996-99. She became the fourth area girl to win a state race – and 90 minutes later Cathilyn McIntosh of Del Oro became the fifth when she claimed the 800 championship in 2:05.21 – since girls entered competition shortly after the passage of Title IX in 1974. And in order, Elena became the sixth regional runner to win.

The only area athlete to repeat in any state track and field event otherwise is Chaniqua Ross of Laguna Creek, who the shot put in 1996 and '97. Fiona O'Keeffe, sister of Olivia, won the 3,200 for Davis in 2016, and Nia Dorner of Cordova took the 400 in 2013.

The Denner sisters alone accounted for 28 points, good for second place and the strongest regional girls showing in history.

Maddy is off to Michigan, Elena to Notre Dame and O'Keeffe to Washington, so they're really just warming up.

"I admire those girls," O'Keeffe said, catching her breath moments after the race. The Denner sisters sought out shade to rest and recover for the 3,200 later in the evening.

"We've been racing against each other for so long, and we all respect each other. I think it's great."

Said Oak Ridge distance coach John Mansoor, "It's very cool. The girls go at each other week after week, for four years. They have become friends. That's the great part of athletics. Yeah, you want to win, but at the same time you can like each other."

As for Maddy's effort, Mansoor said, "Never underestimate the heart of a champion."

O'Keeffe said she is continuously amazed at Maddy's late kick. She held her off a week earlier in clocking a seasonal state best 4:42.71.

"Her move is so bold, so good and so impressive," O'Keeffe said. "You know it's coming and you hope you can withstand it, but I wasn't able to recover. She's so good."

Mansoor said the Maddy kick has become tradition in El Dorado Hills. It is as much strategic as it is devastating.

"We work on that kick year round," Mansoor said. "Elena and Maddy don't have the 400 speed that Olivia and some of the others have. So how do you beat that? You do it with strength and a lot of training. When the field settles in the race, that's when we have Maddy launch. I tell her that she can decide when to do it – at 800 meters, 700, 600.

"Whenever you feel right. Then it forces the other girls to make a decision: Can I do this? Can I hang with her?"

After the 3,200, the Denner sisters were still flush with mixture of fatigue and pride.

"What a day, what a night, what a season," Elena said.

Said Maddy, "For us to both win, to be on the victory podium, it's a great way to end our high school careers."

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