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17 March 2022 • General

Keeley’s inspirational journey to new heights

Keeley O’Hagan cleared a new personal best of 1.88m to strike gold in the senior women’s high jump at the 2022 Jennian Homes New Zealand Track & Field Championships (Photo: Alisha Lovrich)

Keeley O’Hagan was one of the breakout performers at the 2022 Jennian Homes New Zealand Track & Field Championships, clearing a new personal best of 1.88m to strike gold in the senior women’s high jump with an Athletics NZ Commonwealth Games B performance standard. Steve Landells spoke to the Christchurch-based 28-year-old athlete on her rollercoaster journey to new heights.

It was in the unlikely scenario of a lengthy bus trip between Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam to Phnom Penh in Cambodia which triggered a hugely significant moment in the athletics career of Keeley O’Hagan.

Enjoying a two-month end-of-season break backpacking around South East Asia, it was on this particular leg of her overseas adventure when she decided to commit to moving from her home base of Wellington, where she was coached my Mike Ritchie, to relocate to Christchurch to be coached by Terry Lomax.

Familiar with Terry’s group – which included New Zealand men’s record-holder Hamish Kerr and five-time senior men’s high jump medallist Marcus Wolton – the offer was always there to join them on the South Island.

In February 2019, Keeley, eventually made that switch and despite injuries stalling her development during 2022 she has proved invincible domestically culminating in that 3cm improvement to her lifetime best in Hastings earlier this month.

“I had a realisation on that bus trip that I should move to Christchurch to see what I am capable of,” explains Keeley. “I needed to make that change. Internally I had this passion and desire to keep going in the sport and I didn’t want any what ifs or regrets I hadn’t given the sport my all.”  

While for the past three years Terry has formed a central part of her high jumping renaissance, to fully understand Keeley’s full high jump journey we need to rewind the clock back to earlier in her career where she experienced as many lows as she did highs.

Taking up the sport at the age of ten, the youngster from the small town of Otaki on the Kapiti Coast, instantly found her calling in high jump. An outstanding age-group athlete, at the age of just 15 she jumped 1.82m and later competed in 2010 at the World U20 Championships in Moncton, Canada and the following year at the World U18 Championships in Lille.

Yet despite her eye-catching performances, she was suffering from underlying stress, pressure and anxiety. Back then with far less acknowledgement of athlete welfare than in today’s modern sports environment, Keeley’s mental and physical health spiralled.

Struggling at the time with an eating disorder she picked up a series of injuries and looking back accepts she was suffering RED-S (Relative Energy Deficiency in Sport).

“I had some extreme lows,” admits Keeley. “As a teenager, I attempted suicide and ended up in hospital,” she says. “At that time, I was going through teenage hormonal stuff and a couple of things compounded this. I felt quite a lot of pressure on me from a young age. I was not achieving the things I thought I should be achieving and that was quite hard.

“Looking back my identity then was completely intertwined with sport, and I was not able to see my self-worth. Thankfully, today I have some good support around me, and the low days are much less frequent.”

Her journey through to her mid-20s was rocky. The RED-S impacted on her body’s immune system. She struggled with chronic fatigue syndrome, glandular fever with strep throat and tonsilitis becoming a recurring problem.

She would compete on several times across the course of a season before her body would shut down and injury and illness took a grip.

“Looking back, I was under-fuelling because of my eating disorder, which was having a huge impact on my immune response, which is a very common thing for a lot of athletes to have experienced at some point in their career,” she admits.

Despite this such was Keeley’s talent and determination in 2015 she posted a personal best of 1.85m, claimed her first senior national title and later that year placed eighth at the World University Games in Gwangju.

However, as fatigue took a tighter grip she admits some days she could not get out of bed and the 2016 season was a write off.

“Somehow, I managed to finish my degree, but it took me seven months of recovery (because of the fatigue) to go for a run.”

However, thanks to the loving support of family, friends and her ex-coach Mike Ritchie she was guided through this difficult period. Despite not receiving any formal treatment – and but for a brief relapse at the age of 24 – she slowly overcome the eating disorder. Coupled with that she learned to love herself more and the result has been a more mentally and physically robust person which has enabled her to better thrive in a high performance environment.

“I’m very proud of how far I’ve come,” said Keeley. “However, I think I have certain people in my life who made me realise my self-worth as a person and I started pulling away from that mindset of what I look like. In the high jump there is a physical component whereby carrying extra weight can be a limitation. However, I’ve learned that we all have different physiques. I’m on the shorter side for a high jumper (Keeley is 1.75m tall) and I used to be a lot leaner than I am but now I’m so much stronger because I gave changed my mindset. I use food as fuel and I’m comfortable with how I look physically.”

Given her past health issues, Terry has adopted a patient approach with Keeley. Initially training only five sessions a week she nonetheless impressed at the 2019 World University Games in Naples to finish fifth “that was a big highlight of mine.”

In 2020 she matched her personal best of 1.85m from five years earlier and Keeley has little doubt that Terry has played a huge part in her rising fortunes.

“He invests a lot of time in his athletes, and he is quite individualised in his approach,” explains Keeley, who works part-time as a nutritionist. “He’s very technical with a sharp mind and he picks up on some things other people don’t. He does not coach for his own gratification, he is always there for his athletes, which I think is important.”

Part of that “individualised approach” involves basing Keeley’s training around her menstrual cycle which can include easing off on heavier work during week-three of the cycle. 

Motivated by training alongside Hamish Kerr has also proved another ingredient in her success with Keeley admitting the New Zealand men’s high jump record-holder has been a huge source inspiration.

“Watching him first-hand and seeing how hard he works has transferred to me and because of that I am now work far harder than I ever thought I could,” she adds.

Now able to withstand the intensity of double sessions her progress has been most visible this season. Injuries hampered her in 2021 but throughout 2022 she has proved unbeatable domestically and experienced a wave of renewed confidence from her first competition of the year at the Lovelock Classic in Timaru.

“I only jumped 1.67m that day but I felt absolutely incredible,” she says. “I’ve just held on to that for the rest of the season and I’ve had no doubts in my ability to jump 1.88m or higher.”

Slowly finding her rhythm this season it all came together beautifully in Hastings at the 2022 Jennian Homes New Zealand Track & Field Championships. Pushed hard by Imogen Skelton who advanced her previous personal best my a remarkable 6cm during a memorable competition, Keeley faced a high-pressure scenario but responded with calmness.

“Even though Imogen held the upper hand during the 1.86m and 1.88m attempts I didn’t feel too much pressure,” she adds.

“I had set myself up mentally so well for nationals. At the Sir Graeme Douglas meet I jumped well up to 1.83m and held on to those feelings through to nationals. I even had a dream two months earlier of jumping 1.90m and I held on to these feelings too.”

Although 1.90m was beyond her in Hastings – despite a narrow second attempt – the 1.88m clearance and a third national senior title brought “overwhelming happiness” to the 28-year-old jumper.

“My first reaction was one of relief. I usually don’t show much emotion, but that day I was so happy,” she adds. “Although I knew the job wasn’t done and as soon as I cleared 1.88m, I went over to Terry to high five him and said, ‘okay, I now have to clear 1.90m’.”

After jumping 1.80m to win at the Sydney Track Classic in her most recent competition she next plans to compete at the Night of 5s in Auckland on Wednesday (23 March) but given her new standing in the sport following her 1.88m clearance what are her future goals?

“I would like to get into the 1.90s and break the New Zealand record (of 1.92m set by Tania Murray in 1991) which I think that is well within reach. I’d love to jump my way into World Championships in the future and I hope to push on to Paris (and the 2024 Olympic Games). If we can keep building on this season, I know I can get there. What I have achieved this season has certainly solidified by confidence for the next couple of years.”

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