Blood. Sweat. Tears. Trophies. Records. To the average cross country and track fan, this is what graduate student Andrea Keklak has given to the Georgetown cross country and track and field programs. However, behind all those awards lies a classic comeback story after Keklak sustained a devastating injury. As Keklak approaches her final season of wearing Georgetown’s colors competitively, she reflected on her journey recovering from iliotibal band syndrome — a condition that causes knee pain and inflammation and is common among runners — at the end of 2014.
“We had just finished cross country, and that first week of training coming back for the indoor season I remember really clearly I was on an hourlong run with Sarah Cotton and the outside of my knee started hurting,” Keklak said. “At first I was like it will be fine, but over the course of the run it got worse and worse. She eventually ran back to the house, and I had to walk back because it hurt too badly. I took the week off, and it still hurt, and that’s pretty much the short story of how the next six to seven months went.”
Keklak proceeded to train using methods other than running, such as swimming and CrossFit. However, Keklak’s teammates missed her presence and tried to provide emotional support for their friend.
Senior Heather Martin expressed the sympathy she had for her teammate over the course of her recovery.
“I live with her, so I know it was difficult for her living in a house with girls on the team and seeing other people run and have success,” Martin said. “It’s very hard to watch. In the end she came back and had an amazing year, so she obviously stayed in it mentally while she was injured even if it didn’t seem like it at times. She came back and has been running even better this year.”
As Keklak rested and tried to recover from her IT band syndrome, she utilized the opportunity to extend herself beyond the sport she has come to know and love. She spoke about how this allowed her to become a deeper person.
“I was taking a poetry class that semester, so I hung out with people from that class, and we did some things together,” Keklak said. “Honestly, poetry itself is therapeutic, which sounds a little funny, but you just write about things you are feeling and trying to put abstract feelings into words.”
Other forms of less intensive physical activity also helped Keklak through the recovery period.
“I joined a gym that summer and they had yoga classes, so I did that. I thought maybe this would help me make peace with my injury, but I think it really helped me physically. Going a couple weeks helped me relax, and I actually think it was the yoga that helped me run again. There was one day where I had to run, so I went and ran and it didn’t hurt. I did the run and remember texting [Director of Cross Country and Track and Field Michael Smith] and he responded that, ‘We got this.’ I think we both realized that this was the turning point,” Keklak said.
Throughout her recovery period, along with writing poetry and doing yoga, Keklak would visit Smith in his office when she needed someone to confide in. Smith described his relationship with Keklak as a coach and mentor.
“I look at coaching first as that we are teachers and that we work with people during a very pivotal, changing time in their life — it is impossible to just see them as athletes,” Smith said. “To engage them on this journey to push themselves as far as they can in athletics, it is not a journey that you can isolate strictly when you talk about training. There are times when you become focused on developing the whole person and through that they can advance their athletics. Injury is a great loss, injury is mourning, and when you see them having to work through that, those feelings can be very confusing. So when it comes to someone being hurt, I try to be the clear communicator of how they can get through it.”
Keklak was cleared to run competitively in time for the 2015 cross country season, and she jumped back into racing and slowly progressed throughout the season. At the 2015 Big East cross country championship, Keklak finished in fifth place overall with a time of 19:58.3. Keklak carried over that late-season momentum into what turned out to be a record-breaking season for the transfer from Princeton University. At the Penn State Nittany Lion Challenge, Keklak broke the Georgetown school record in the 1,000-meter race, crossing the finish line with a time of 2:42.76. Keklak proceeded to break the school record in the mile at the Boston University David Hemery Valentine Invitational, winning the event at 4:33.24.
To cap off a monumental season, Keklak, along with Martin, junior Emma Keenan and graduate student Katrina Coogan won the NCAA championship title in the women’s distance medley relay. Recording a time of 10:57.21, the foursome made history by clocking in the ninth-fastest DMR in NCAA history. Yet, through all of this success, Keklak said she knows her time as a Hoya must soon come to an end.
“It’s funny because I actually cleaned my room the other day and found my old numbers and papers I wrote when I first got here,” Keklak said. “That feels like a different life. But it also feels like it was yesterday. You just feel this nostalgia going into this last season, like we are going to race five or six more times. I think it reminds you that you have to make the most of your opportunities now.”