Fiona O’Keeffe arrives at the starting line, blending in with the masses, a stoic face in the crowd.
On Friday night in Elk Grove, in a scene played out numerous times the past three years, a pack of runners, in a slight forward lean, were all even, ready for the gun. But it is O’Keeffe’s uncanny ability to pull away from the pack that sets her apart by a virtual mile.
The Davis High School junior soon was racing only against the clock in the eight-lap, 3,200-meter run, gobbling up meters and runners like Ms. Pac-Man, only O’Keeffe was garbed in a Blue Devils singlet.
Nearby, Davis distance coach Bill Gregg watched incredulously as the Sac-Joaquin Section Masters race unfolded, O’Keeffe bearing down on a record. He stood with a hand to his chest, nodding, emotional.
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“She has a switch, and I’m not sure I fully understand it,” Gregg said. “The great ones have it, and it’s a ‘I’m just going to go’ sort of thing. And she just goes and goes. We’re so invested in her, so impressed. It’s powerful.”
How powerful? The slender 5-foot-3 O’Keeffe lapped nine of the region’s best runners to win in 10 minutes, 0.85 seconds, breaking the tape to a standing ovation. She set a section Masters meet record with the second fastest time in the country this season.
O’Keeffe barrels into the CIF State Track and Field Championships this weekend in Clovis as the Sacramento region’s prohibitive favorite to bring home a gold medal. Southern California runners have for decades dominated all races short and long, but O’Keeffe, even at her height, casts a considerable shadow.
O’Keeffe’s effort Friday is a whopping 11 seconds better than the next fastest 3,200 mark in the state this year as she attempts to make history. No area girls runner has won a state race outside the 400 or 800.
Gregg is a believer.
“I’m just stunned,” he said as O’Keeffe finished the Masters meet. “She’s just so good. I know she has dreams and aspirations to do some great things in this sport.”
The shy, unassuming O’Keeffe said she has even surprised herself.
“I set goals, but I never expected to get to this level, to be this good,” O’Keeffe said.
O’Keeffe approaches running as a strategic art, as a test of will and endurance and a way to lose herself. She’s a 4.0 GPA student, her days full of Advanced Placement biology, history and English, so exercise eases the brain.
“Running,” she said with a laugh, “definitely keeps me sane.”
O’Keeffe was introduced to the sport by her parents, Malcolm and Liv. Both ran distance events at Kennedy High School in Sacramento in the 1980s, and Liv ran for a bit at Oregon. The more Fiona O’Keeffe ran, the more she liked it, and the more she liked it, the better she became.
Now she is dominant. A two-time CIF State champion in cross country, O’Keeffe visualizes another state title as she logs some 40 miles a week, a good many of those in the open farm fields in Yolo County.
“It’s very peaceful,” O’Keeffe said of those runs. “The sky is so open.”
What makes O’Keeffe so unique? Gregg said O’Keeffe is “a fierce competitor, and when the gun goes off, she marshals an inner strength that I’ve only seen in a handful of athletes.”
He added that O’Keeffe has remarkable running mechanics, “which equate to great efficiency and economy. Add that to her mental makeup, and you’ve got a special athlete.”
O’Keeffe downplayed all of it. She doesn’t consider herself any more extraordinary than her eight Davis teammates also headed to the CIF State meet. An extra kick? That she has, admittedly.
“I’m excited and nervous (about the state meet),” O’Keeffe said. “I just love my race. I can really get into a rhythm. More so than the 800; that’s just a sprint.”
O’Keeffe will compete in the prestigious PR Invitational on June 20 in Seattle, featuring the best runners in the country. Then it’s a family vacation to Italy. It’ll be idle time, a chance to rest and recover, to explore and sightsee with her sister Olivia, who will be a sophomore at Davis this fall. But O’Keeffe won’t forget her running shoes. They’re as much a part of her as her long, braided ponytail.
“It’s always fun to run a little,” O’Keeffe said.
Or run a lot.
If you go
- What: CIF State Track & Field Championships
- When: Trials Friday 3 p.m., finals Saturday 4:30 p.m.
- Where: Buchanan High School, Clovis
- Tickets: $10 ($7 students) Friday, $12 ($8) Saturday