• The Oval Magazine

Fetch Your Tool of Liberation

Photo Credit: Aaron Shepley

Tap-tap-tap-tap: My feet drum out a steady rhythm on the asphalt as I run down H Street.

Seven easy miles on a Monday morning — nothing special — but it sometimes feels like a small miracle, still. Some combination of experiences and renewed perspective and gratitude have gotten me to this point.

Thinking about my final year as a Stanford student-athlete, I feel confused and a little unsatisfied, but at my core deeply grateful.

The Grateful Dead put it best: “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

This strangeness, so to speak, started last summer, when we learned that our long-time coach was leaving. It was weeks before our new coach was announced. During this time of tremendous uncertainty, I found myself relying on my teammates more than ever.

We realized how deeply we were connected as a team, regardless of who was coaching us.

Being able to rely on one another for training advice, perspective and solidarity during this time was critical.

As the year got moving, our team went to training camp, adjusted to a new coaching staff and program and eventually won the conference championship. We were rolling, and one of the teams in the hunt for the national title.

After PAC-12s, though, my dream cross country season came to a screeching halt when my back suddenly stopped cooperating.

One morning, at breakfast after the last hard workout I completed that season, I distinctly remember willing myself to walk from the counter to the table where my teammates were sitting. Each step was a massive effort. I sat down and gave a fake smile but I was fooling nobody, least of all myself.

NCAAs was two weeks later.

“This is the worst possible timing,” I thought, with all the perspective of an athlete narrowly focused on championship season. My mileage dropped to precisely zero as I got in the pool each day. Walking started to feel a bit better, but putting on jeans remained a challenge; standing on my right leg was less than fun.

How in the world was I supposed to race six kilometers over hill and dale like this?

Fast-forward to Terre Haute, Indiana, on November 16th. Somehow, I was on the starting line, in uniform. I’d managed a 2-mile run two days prior, and I had jogged a bit of the course the day before. My pre-race strides weren’t pretty, but they were done.

This was happening.

I tried not to think about it too much, to pretend that the tape on my back would actually hold me together for this race. I glanced at my teammates, absorbed their strength and composure in this moment.

For each other.

The only thing that got me through that race was running alongside my training partners — as long as I could keep up, at least. They, and the months of time and energy we’d invested as a group in this moment, were my lifeline through a deeply disorienting twenty minutes.

I crossed the line as our team’s third runner that day in 27th place.

A far cry from my individual hopes just weeks earlier, but enough to help with the team scoring—that’s what mattered. We ended up third that day, our team’s highest finish in seven years. Still, part of me wondered if I could’ve done more, scored fewer points. Was it enough?

Was it worth it? The next three months in the pool and on the bike?

I do know that I would’ve regretted it forever if I’d sat on the sidelines while my teammates raced without me. What I never imagined, though, was that this would be my last race in a Stanford uniform. The door to those days is now closed, though it feels more that some gust slammed it shut rather than that I closed it neatly behind me.

Control is mostly an illusion anyways, as we’ve all seen recently.

Now, with the coronavirus having sent us home, we are once more in a state of deep uncertainty. When will we compete again? Will non-revenue sports like cross country and track be especially affected? Will universities allow us to return to campus in the fall?

On a personal level, though, this time of uncertainty is vastly different from the past summer. I’m set to graduate in June, and I’ve left the teammates I studied, lived and trained with nearly every waking hour. In the fall, I’ll start a graduate program at the University of New Mexico, where I’ll be using the remainder of my track eligibility.

A fresh start is what I need.

Moving to Albuquerque might not sound universally appealing, but I’m excited for a new adventure in the desert. I get to live with my sister again, chase the running dream and do research on climate change in a multi-faceted city at the base of the Sandia Mountains.

Being back at home with my family and nothing pressing to train for is a strange feeling, and yet the pandemic truly has given me perspective. Back on campus, I’d been rushing back from my injury in an attempt to qualify for the Trials. As I was focused on clawing my way back to fitness, I wasn’t prioritizing the long term and the many years of running I hope are ahead of me. I was stressed about school and the future and oftentimes wasn’t fully present to enjoy being a part of our team.

Here, now, I realize it’s the people around us that matter, and the choices we make every day about how to live our lives.

Life may not be its most exciting right now, but I’m pretty dang lucky if that’s my biggest concern. My family and I are safe and healthy, and we’re able to work and study from home.

I’m reclaiming my running.

The sport I started at age 11 because it made me feel free like nothing else.

Certainly, I still have dreams, goals, ambitions. But I’m not willing to sacrifice my happiness chasing certain outcomes. The process is everything, and I can’t wait to see where it takes me.

The stories that we tell — and the ones that we don’t — have immense power. They can trap us in ideas of who we think others want us to be, or who we think we should be.

I also believe, though, that they can liberate us.

I hope that by sharing a small piece of mine, I might become a bit more free. More now than ever, the world needs people to embrace their shared humanity, and I hope that more of us can fully share, and listen, to one another’s experiences.

FIONA O’KEEFFE — UNIVERSITY OF NEW MEXICO / STANFORD UNIVERSITY ALUM

One Mile Run: 4:39.71

3000 Meter Run: 8:58.58

5000 Meter Run (Track): 15:31.45

2019 Pac-12 Cross Country Individual Champion

Six-Time All-American

Academic All-American

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