UNC track star Anna Keefer says her appetite for improvement was fostered after suffering a knee injury in the spring of 2021.
Ahead of the 2022 season, she set a plan for what would be her final season at UNC. The redshirt senior detailed her plan with multiple goals she wanted to achieve to demonstrate her full athletic potential.
Last week, her final season in Carolina blue came to an end. Competing at the 2022 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championship in Eugene, Ore., Keefer missed the finals in the long jump event by three-fourths of an inch to finish in tenth place.
While the efforts she’s made to return to the NCAA championship meet didn’t have the end results she hoped for, Keefer still has a lot to be proud of this season.
She earned first-team All-America honors, set numerous personal records as a jumper and sprinter and was crowned the ACC Indoor Champion in the long jump.
These accomplishments, when paired with the five-time All-American’s road to recovery, are even more impressive.
Road to recovery
When Keefer's junior season came to an end due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she returned home to St. Michael Albertville, Minn., to train in her mother’s garage. However, due to limited space for cardio training, Keefer flew back to Chapel Hill to give herself a proper training environment.
“It's really hard because it's like, you don't really know what you're training for,” Keefer said. “But at the same time, you do.”
For three months, Keefer spent hours training alone or with her teammate and boyfriend, sprinter Isaiah Palmer. The support they provided for each other allowed them to stay motivated and accountable in progressing towards their goals.
“When I see her excel that makes me want to excel,” Palmer said.
After battling through setbacks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Keefer suffered a knee injury in her fourth season after landing awkwardly on her knee in a long jump attempt. Keefer popped a bursa sac in her knee and later developed iliotibial band syndrome.
Not able to compete in running events, the long jump became the only event in which she could compete. Despite the discomfort, Keefer continued to train in lighter volume and intensity.
“There’s so many things I feel in everyday life that I changed or made a part of my lifestyle to be able to try to do whatever I could to have success,” Keefer said.
Keefer frequented the Stallings-Evans Sports Medicine Center, where she did several exercises to improve the issue. Even with this treatment, Keefer's injury would only resolve with the help of rest and a lot of waiting.
A year later, ahead of her last season at UNC, Keefer wrote out a list of goals she wanted to accomplish to improve in her long jump and sprinting events.
Keefer immediately made due on her goals, as she started off the season with back-to-back personal bests.
She performed a personal best at the Tiger Paw Invite in the long jump resulting in a 21-2.50 (6.46m)finish — only off by a centimeter to take the school record. Keefer, on fire, set another personal record in the 200-meter dash, bettering a 24-year-old school record with a 23.24-second finish.
Her success won't come as a shock after you've learned the strictly structured routine she’s kept herself on.
Keefer gets exactly eight hours of sleep every night. She takes a conscious effort when it comes to her meal prep — down to eating the same breakfast (eggs with toast or an English muffin) every day. Sometimes, her rigor even causes her to miss out on school and social events to maintain her tunnel vision.
“Everything I did was like, I live, breathe, sleep track,” Keefer said.
During this past season, Keefer made an extra effort outside of practice to take care of her body and prevent any further injuries. She made extra time to visit the sports medicine center, warming up her muscles an hour before practice to avoid any injury. She'd return to the center for care once practice concluded every single day.
Two weeks after her record-breaking performance at the Tiger Paw Invite, Keefer's edge was on display at the ACC Indoor Championship, as she won first place in the long jump event. A personal best won Keefer the gold and broke the UNC program record with a 21-6 (6.55m) finish.
Keefer said she doesn’t recall competing in a meet where everything was so in sync as she got closer to her winning score. She even hyped up the crowd as she prepared to take her last jump attempt.
“It was a perfect competition, and it was one of the most fun times I've had competing because it was just so easy," Keefer said.
While Keefer made her accomplishment look effortless, it was a result of her consistent drive to cross her goals off of her list.
“She's made sacrifices to put herself in a position to be a multiple-time All-American and compete,” Michael Eskind, Keefer's jumping coach at UNC, said.
Until Eskind took over as Keefer’s coach in the fall of 2019, Keefer underwent multiple coaching changes and felt her progression was lacking with this inconsistency.
Keefer increased her jump by over a foot and a half during her time under Eskind’s coaching. This past year, she dropped her average speed in the 200 meter by almost a full second. She even surprised herself by resetting the UNC program record in the 200-meter dash at the NCAA East Preliminary Round.
“Usually my goals are realistic, so I wanted to run 23 low, but to run 22.8 definitely surpassed my expectation,” Keefer said.
The many accolades Keefer has accumulated this past season are meaningful but her dedication to succeed is more fulfilling.
“That means the most to me that all my time and effort allowed me to achieve the goals and the marks that I wanted,” Keefer said.
What’s next for Keefer?
After wrapping up her final season, Keefer will continue training to compete in the 2022 Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships in late June. Keefer expects her long-term career path to become clearer during the summer.
She has three options to choose from, as she wants to continue to compete or take her hobby of photography and videography more seriously. Keefer’s even been offered an opportunity to work with professional wrestling company WWE.
Regardless of where her talents may take her, due to her drive and determination, she will be in conversations as one of the greats in the UNC track & field program.