It was a seemingly innocuous conversation between a high school teacher and a student. But when Whiteland Community High School cross-country standout Gabe O’Keefe recently signed his national letter of intent to compete at NCAA Division I Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, it was a prominent memory.
O’Keefe, his parents Steve and Deb, and Whiteland cross-country and track coach Brandon Bangel each remember how the athlete’s odyssey toward competitive success began.
“I had him as a freshman in health class and he had just moved to the area from Ohio,” Bangel recalled. “He wasn’t running cross-country because we had already started, but I noticed he had a shirt on for a 5K race.”
Gabe’s mother Deb, an avid runner herself, remembers the shirt.
“I think he had gotten it at a race he ran with me in Ohio, where we lived before,” she said.
Gabe’s memory tracks with his coach’s and his mom’s.
“I had run in a couple of races with my mom and had gotten a T-shirt at one of them,” he said.
“Coach saw (the shirt) and asked me about it,” Gabe added.
“I remember he said ‘I like to run, but I’m not any good,’” Bangel said. “When he signed his letter of intent, I was laughing with his dad that here’s a kid who we were hoping could be competitive on the JV team someday, and here he was signing to run in Division I.”
Deb O’Keefe saw the potential in her son.
“We thought he was built like a runner. He’s kind of slim,” she said. “It turns out he’s done really well. He runs all the time now.”
Gabe admits he had a long way to go.
“Starting high school I wasn’t very fast, in fact I was very slow, but I enjoyed running,” he said. “When I started practicing, I was the slowest guy on the team.”
He credits a lot of his progress due to a change in technique
“I started fixing some stuff. I changed my stride,” he said. “I went from pounding my feet on the pavement like I was trying to hurt myself, to moving forward as I strode. Instead of landing on my heels, I learned to land on my toes, so even a jog for me looks a lot more like a sprint.”
The improvement is measured in drastically improved times, with O’Keefe cutting his time for the 5,000 meter cross-country distance (3.1 miles) nearly in half, from 28:32 to 16:46.
Bangel notes that the improved technique and times don’t come simply as a matter of mechanics, but are the result of hard work.
“He’s one of the hardest workers, if not the hardest worker, on the team,” he said. “He listens to everything you tell him as a coach. He listens to the race strategy and you realize you have to tell him the right thing because going to do exactly what you say. It’s just what you want in a kid.”
When O’Keefe started looking at colleges where he could study mechanical engineering, he began a dialogue with the coaching staff at IPFW, who were impressed with his times. The offer of some athletic scholarship money helped seal the deal.
Deb O’Keefe said it’s evident to her that Gabe is following the right path.
“His father is a mechanical engineer too and we noticed as early as age 2 that Gabe is a problem solver,” she said. “They will talk about some things and to me it sounds like Charlie Brown’s teacher talking. I have no idea what they are saying, but you can look back and see the Lord has been guiding his steps.”
In college cross-country there will twice as many steps per race, with the distance at that level covering 10,000 meters (6.2 miles) for championship events. Some races are run over 8,000 meters. Bangel believes O’Keefe can do even better in the longer race.
“He’s suited to go the longer distance. When we do workouts, the longer repeats are where he has the really good times,” he said. “He doesn’t have a ton of speed, but does really well over the longer races. Even compared to running the mile or two mile in track, he has a little more success in cross-country in a longer race.”
O’Keefe said his top time in a 10K road race is 35:32 on at last winter’s Jingle Bell Run in downtown Indianapolis. He added that this time puts him about a minute behind the top 10 times at IPFW and that he typically runs a faster time on grass and hills than on pavement.
O’Keefe is confident he can continue improving his times. He also has set a goal for the high school track season to break the school record of 9:40 in the 2-mile run. His best time in the event thus far is 10:02. IPFW does not have a men’s track team, but Bangel said O’Keefe could compete in some college track meets running unattached.
While he wants to continue improving his times, O’Keefe also believes his involvement in the sport, and running in general, has improved him as a person.
“It has changed me significantly, for the better,” he said. “In my freshman year I was a sickly, tiny, white guy playing a lot of World of Warcraft. Now I’m about as solid as I can be and loving life.”