Distance running isn't for everyone.
For Olivia O'Keeffe
, it's what she does best.
The junior at Davis (Calif.)
had a breakout sophomore season in track and field last year and followed that up with a Division I state cross country title this year. This track season, she's prepping for another run at a championship.
A stress reaction in her right tibia forced O'Keeffe to sit at the beginning of this track season, but she's healthy now and ready to improve on her third-place finish in the 1,600-meter race at the CIF State Championships as a sophomore.
"It's been a real slow start," said Bill Gregg, the Davis assistant track and field coach in charge of distance runners. "But I'm a real believer in exercising extra caution with kids this age. She's worked super hard in her cross training and she's kind of gone through this period of soreness."
O'Keeffe is easing her way into the season. However, she still has set big goals for the state meet.
"I'm definitely a very internally motivated person and I put a lot of pressure on myself," O'Keeffe said. "I'm not going to be satisfied with something I know isn't my best. So in all my workouts since I've been back, I've really been trying to push hard and my times have been faster than they previously have been. But at the same time, I'm trying to balance coming back carefully and not increasing my mileage too quickly."
O'Keeffe looks back at last track season and knows her best running came most opportune moments.
"I wasn't actually too happy with my performances until the state meet, so my season was pretty standard," O'Keeffe said. "Considering what I'd done in track, I was expecting a lot more. My workouts were getting progressively better as the season moved along. I felt like the state meet was me finally being able to do what I felt was in me."
O'Keeffe ran a personal-best of 4:48.66 at state and was three seconds back of the winner. Learn more about the MaxPreps US Marines program at www.maxpreps.com/marines
O'Keeffe also is a very strong 800 runner. She had a good sophomore season in the event, clocking a personal-best time of 2:12. Late in the season, she decided to concentrate on the 1,600, which is something she might do this year, too.
"I think she'll use the 800 for the most part as a race to strengthen her 1,600," Gregg said. "It's a very difficult double in California to do 800, 1,600."
Gregg believes O'Keefe is on target to have a great season, especially since she's had time to recuperate.
"I think if she's healthy at the state meet, she'll be one of the people racing for that title, absolutely," Gregg said. "She's got incredible closing speed, so if she's in the neighborhood with a lap to go and that little light bulb goes off in her head – I don't know if describing her as dangerous is the right word – but she's done things at the end of races that I don't think she thought she could do before the race started. But if she's in the mix, she's got that switch that you can't teach."
O'Keeffe's race strategy isn't to lead wire-to-wire. She's content to stay close to the lead pack before making a late move. That was evident at the CIF Cross Country Championships last fall in Fresno.
She was in 25th place after the first mile and seventh at the two-mile turn. With only a couple hundred meters to go, O'Keeffe made her move and outkicked Martin Luther King's Lauren Peurifoy, winning the race by a half second in 17:28.9.
"She came by me with about 300 meters to go and I don't think she'd passed that girl quite yet; she was just sort of in the process of doing that," said Gregg, who is also the head cross country coach. "I know it sounds kind of strange, but in my mind I said she was going to win the race because I've seen her in that situation before."
It was a surreal feeling, mixed with disbelief, for O'Keeffe to take home gold.
"I crossed the line and I was so convinced there had to be someone in front of me," O'Keeffe said.
It marked the first time in O'Keeffe's varsity cross country career she had finished first. Everything came together in that race.
"Sometimes I tend to really freak out before a race and I get really stressed out, but going into that race I had a super concrete plan that I felt really calm and confident about it," O'Keeffe said. "I had a time goal, which was 17:35, but I didn't put any pressure on myself to win and hadn't even considered that as an option."
For the second straight year, the Davis cross country team finished runner-up at the state meet to Royal Oak. O'Keeffe felt honored to be a part of another strong Davis squad, which also placed second in back-to-back years at Nike Cross Nationals in Portland, Ore.
Winning the individual state title was special for O'Keeffe and her family. O'Keeffe's older sister, Fiona, had a standout high school career, winning three state championships, two in cross country in 2014 and 2015 and the 3,200-meter run in track last year.
O'Keeffe is pushed as a runner by the success of her sister, who is now competing at Stanford.
"Seeing just how hard she works and how humble she is about it all is really impressive and definitely motivating," O'Keeffe said.
However, O'Keeffe has never let her sister's achievements affect her in a negative way.
"At the beginning, I thought maybe it was sort of an impediment, in maybe that Olivia didn't think she could run like her sister," Gregg said. "Over time, it's helped a lot. They're very close."
Just like her older sister, O'Keeffe is looking at running track and cross country in college. With a 4.5 grade point average, she'll be able to get into any school of her choice. On her radar are California, Washington, Colorado, Providence, Arkansas, Northern Arizona and Georgetown.
O'Keeffe is enrolled in two advanced placement courses and one honors class this semester. She also involved for the second year with the Freedom from Hunger, an organization that provides microloans to women and families in developing countries. The club runs two major events per year – a shoe drive in the fall and a track meet in early summer where all proceeds goes toward Freedom from Hunger.
Through O'Keeffe's environmental science class, she's an intern for the MMMILC Project at the University of California at Davis. It's a study on the relationship between the milkweed plant and monarch butterflies, specifically with relation to climate change. Students in the project go out once a week to a levee near Davis High School to measure milkweed plants and check the butterflies in the area. Environmental sciences isn't an area O'Keeffe likely will pursue in college – she's leaving toward medicine – but she's extremely interested in the research project.
The study is a valuable part of O'Keeffe's curriculum at school. She puts a great deal of stock into the project as she does with academics as a whole.
"Academics is especially important in my family," O'Keeffe said. "My parents have placed a large emphasis on that and expect a lot from me and my sister, but I think it's great. It teaches us how to really study and work hard at something that's not athletic-based."
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