Farm to France: Fiona O’Keeffe becomes U.S. Olympian in marathon debut

Farm to France is an ongoing series on Cardinal athletes headed to the 2024 Summer Games in Paris, France.

“I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first marathon.” 

Most athletes who have qualified for the Olympics brings loads of experience to their sport.  However, Stanford cross country alum Fiona O’Keeffe made history in her marathon debut by breaking the U.S. marathon trials record by over three minutes, with a time of 2:22:10 sec.

This performance punched O’Keeffe’s ticket to the 2024 Olympic Games this summer in Paris, which could vault her into stardom sooner than expected. 

Rising star

O’Keeffe’s coach Alistair Cragg explained that running the trials as O’Keeffe’s first marathon was to prepare her for the 2028 Olympics. “I believed that Fiona could likely be a medal contender on the World stage, so we felt that even the experience of running the trials will bode well for L.A. 2028.”

“But, as we saw, Paris 2024 is lining up very nicely in her crosshairs.”

O’Keeffe led most of the race and broke away at the end. Running most of the race by herself, O’Keeffe emphasized the importance of self talk to keep her mind focused. 

“I have a few mantras that I’ll go to that I’ve used in training,” O’Keeffe said. “Sometimes I’ll think about a hard workout that I’ve done and be like, I can handle this. I’ve felt this before. Just trying to kind of lean into the feeling of the race instead of being scared of it.”

Solving the training “Rubik’s cube

According to Cragg, marathon training is not as straightforward as training in other sports. Cragg used a Rubik’s cube as a metaphor: “Each marathon build up is like a Rubik’s cube. At first it seems jumbled and doesn’t make sense. But as the athlete’s fitness starts to fall in place, workouts almost fall into a familiar pattern.”

Consistency is more important than stand-out efforts, Cragg said.

O’Keeffe was focused on a consistent training pattern since her college days. According to JJ Clark, Stanford’s head cross country coach, the program tries to adopt a process of gradual athletic development that encompasses both the mental and physical elements in the sport.

Patience was the key in college, and it continues to be integral to O’Keeffe’s training. “Fiona is still only 25 years old, and we have emphasized patience, as we believe that she is going to be at the top of the sport for a very long time,” Cragg said.

Team behind the time

A cross-country star in college, O’Keeffe found that transitioning to marathon running came naturally. But beyond this skill foundation, Stanford helped her realize that she could achieve whatever goals she set, O’Keeffe said. 

Stanford “helped me just see the way that people were able to translate whatever vision they had, and whatever gifts they had into things that they were concretely achieving and striving towards,” O’Keeffe said. “That definitely helped me have a little more confidence to have crazy goals and dreams, and go after them.”

Even though the marathon is an individual race, the team environment factored into her success — a foundation built while on Stanford’s team. “I can’t overstate how much the team experience meant to me in school,” O’Keeffe said. While team environments are sometimes too competitive, O’Keeffe said her team members “were genuinely happy for one another’s success.”

Now training with the Puma Elite team in North Carolina, O’Keeffe found a supportive environment similar to Stanford’s squad. “When you see your teammate do something exciting and you’re able to be really happy for them, it inspires you. It’s this positive feedback loop.” 

O’Keeffe is grateful for the wisdom and support her teams have provided her over the years. And, O’Keeffe said, it makes everyday moments easier: “If I have an easy 10 mile run this morning, having teammates to go with a lot of the time turns it from being mundane to invigorating, because I get to be around people that excite me.” 

While the olympic marathon runner has already inspired people on her Puma Elite squad, she hopes her story can have an impact on a larger stage. 

“I hope that my story can inspire people to try new things,” O’Keeffe said. She encouraged people to embrace “aspirations that might seem beyond where they currently are.”