By Kellen Browning,
Throughout her dominant cross-country career, Davis High’s junior standout Fiona O’Keeffe has experienced few truly testing races. Last year’s NXN (Nike Cross Nationals) was one of those, with O’Keeffe finishing fourth behind national-class runners Alexa Efraimson (now running professionally for Nike), Elise Cranny (12th at NCAAs this year) and Sarah Baxter, a University of Oregon recruit.
With those three gone, O’Keeffe was the top returnee and one of the favorites to win this year’s NXN, held at Glendoveer Golf Course in Portland, Ore. But like last year, the race proved extremely difficult.
O’Keeffe led the race through the first mile, paced by fellow Californian Marissa Williams, who was second to O’Keeffe at the California state meet. After that, though, Alaska state champion and eventual race winner Allie Ostrander took charge, with O’Keeffe and several other girls working to keep up.
“I felt pretty good in the first mile, and then the second mile I tried to make a move [to pull away] a little bit,” O’Keeffe said. “But Allie Ostrander and a couple of other girls matched me and they started making their own moves, and I tried to hang with them, but then the third mile I got dropped by the first couple girls.”
O’Keeffe was able to hang on to Ostrander and eventual second-place finisher Paige Hofstad (second at the Texas state meet) for a while, but was eventually dropped. She was passed by Danielle Jones (the Arizona state champion) right before the end, finishing in fourth.
“I guess I was just trying to tell myself to stay in it, and that they weren’t that far away, and that maybe I could catch up to them, even though that didn’t happen,” O’Keeffe said of her mindset during the final mile.
DHS cross-country coach Bill Gregg, who traveled with O’Keeffe to Oregon, says that despite the fourth place finish, O’Keeffe has had a great season.
“I wouldn’t even say today was disappointing; to be fourth is still a great accomplishment […] her season overall was pretty unparalleled for the Davis High cross-country program,” Gregg said.
“I think right after the race, [she was] probably a little disappointed […] forty-five minutes, an hour later, I thought she seemed pretty at peace with it. I think she would say, ‘Hey, I gave it everything I had.’ ”
Both O’Keeffe and Gregg agree that the soft conditions and muddy terrain may have negatively impacted her race.
“The course softened up quite a bit from yesterday, and I think [she was unable to get] some of the energy that she was hoping to get the way the course felt yesterday; it was just a little squishy, and I think that she was working a little too hard to overcome the ‘squishiness,'” Gregg said.
Even though the conditions were adverse, Gregg believes that O’Keeffe did “everything she needed to do strategically” and describes her race as “a fabulous effort.”
“I think she was super-focused during the whole race, and the difference between first place and fourth place is really a matter of who is best on that day,” Gregg said.
Both runner and coach give credit to Ostrander, whom O’Keeffe met beforehand and described as “really sweet” and “like the tiniest person ever.”
Though diminutive compared to others in the field, Ostrander “never looked like she was hurting,” according to Gregg.
The race itself was not the only part of O’Keeffe’s trip to Portland; the 22 teams and 90 individual athletes at NXN toured the Nike headquarters and had the opportunity to meet fellow elite high school runners.
“I’d say we about split our time between the hotel and Nike headquarters, and it’s been really great getting to know the other girls from California–they’re all super cool. And we’ve met a lot of new people, so that’s really awesome,” O’Keeffe said.
Last year, O’Keeffe was accompanied by the rest of the women’s varsity team (who did not qualify this year), but flying solo this time gave her the chance to bond with other runners from California.
“The California girls seemed to really come together, sort of ‘OK, hey, we’re a unit,'” Gregg said. “I think […] she was a little worried like ‘well, what’s it gonna be like ’cause I’m here without my team,’ but I think now she can look back and say ‘It was great.'”
“Amber [Gore] and Amanda [Gehrich] and Chloe [Hansel] from California are all super nice and fun!” said O’Keeffe, who also appreciated the presence of Gregg at NXN.
“Having Bill was really great. He’s really supportive and I don’t know what I’d do without him.”
The morning of NXN, O’Keeffe’s family, friends and teammates gathered in English teacher and track coach Spencer Elliott’s room at DHS to watch the live stream of the race. O’Keeffe’s teammate, senior Maggie McManis, had the inspiration to organize the event.
“I figured that everyone would either be watching it on their own, or not watching it at all, so I thought that it’d be a great way to support our teammate and friend, and just do it together,” McManis said. “I wasn’t expecting this big of a turnout at all; it was great.”
McManis thinks that O’Keeffe should be happy with her performance at NXN.
“I think Fiona gave it her all. I think she ran with her heart […] I’m just really proud of her,” McManis said.
And now that the cross-country season is over, Gregg says it’s time for O’Keeffe to take a well-deserved break.
“It’s time to rest and recharge the batteries,” Gregg said.
“And after the batteries are recharged…track’s a long season, so we’ll work on coming up with a great season plan that will I hope maximize her chances to be super strong at the end of the season.”
O’Keeffe, who has a 3200-meter personal best of 10:14.60 (14th in the nation last year) but was unable to compete at the track state meet due to injury, has a simple plan for her upcoming season: “stay healthy.”
Click here to watch O’Keeffe’s post-race interview from milesplit.com.