Before becoming an eight-time Illinois Elementary School Association state champion for Sacred Heart School, before setting all-time records in the state cross country meet and 1600-meter run, before breaking the seventh grade record in the 800, Anna Sophia Keller motored her pint-sized figure around a tiny track at the YMCA.
Then a fourth grader, Keller’s favorite sport was not based on the track, but rather in the pool. A devoted swimmer, Keller only discovered her untapped running abilities through the team’s land-based training program, where her coach had the team exchange lanes in the pool for lanes on the distance-challenged course that rested overhead. Twelve laps measured out to one mile, and in those swim-practice races, joined by older brother Peter, Keller first offered a glimpse of her immense potential.
“They would run a lot up there to help their endurance in swimming,” Anna Sophia’s father Chuck Keller said. “That’s when I think she noticed that she was good. She was passing all the other kids except for her brother.”
Peter was a sixth grader, but Keller was holding her own. The thrilling races at the YMCA led Keller to practice with the Sacred Heart cross country team that fall, before entering her first competitive meet the following year.
“In fifth grade we already knew some meets that they had,” Anna Sophia Keller said of scheduling her first race. “The Cow Chip meet, it was just fifth-grade boys and girls all together, and they do each grade like that. I ran at that first meet, and I did really well, so I kept on wanting to run. I kept on going that whole fifth grade year in cross country.”
At the Cow Chip Classic in 2009, Keller shocked all those in attendance by dominating the field and winning the fifth-grade division, regardless of gender.