BRADEN LAYER Daily News
Effingham Daily News
---- — 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.
She qualified for the state cross country meet at Maxwell Park in Normal a few months later, taking home seventh. Her finish marked the best-ever effort from a fifth grader at the state meet, beating the previous mark by nine places.
“I just wanted to run the race,” Keller said. “I never expected to win or anything.”
Fair or not, expectations only increased from there. The following spring, Keller won the state title in the 1600 at the Eastside Centre in Peoria, crossing the finish line at 5:33.
As a sixth grader, Keller set the Class A record at the state cross country meet in 2010 with a time of 11:22, then repeated her 1600-meter track title in the spring at 5:22.
After capturing three more championships in seventh grade, including a track title in the 800, Keller saved her best efforts for her IESA farewell tour. With a time of 11:09 at the state cross country meet in 2012, Keller broke her own all-time record set a year earlier, regardless of division, by a full three seconds. Adding to the accomplishment was her perseverance to overcome wet, windy conditions and an initial misstep, thanks to a teammate.
“It was really wet and rainy,” Keller said. “I really wanted to get under 11 minutes, but I did 11:09 because it was all wet and I slipped at the beginning too. Kristen Slaughter—I almost like fell actually, there were all these people crowded around, she kind of blocked them off for me.”
A three-time cross country champion, Keller went about trying to pick up her fourth state title in the 1600 this past spring. She knew she had a solid chance to win, but that wouldn’t suffice. Keller had her eyes on Katelyn Bastert’s all-time record of 5:04.91, set in 2003 when Bastert ran for Carthage.
“The track records—they seem to be a lot harder to break for the mile,” Keller said.
She needed every ounce of gas in the tank, but Keller crossed the finish line at the Eastside Centre at 5:03.08, good enough to set a Class A and Class 2A all-time record. Exerting all the energy she had, Keller became an eight-time state champion and the most decorated IESA athlete in history.
Now entering high school, Keller is relatively relieved to carve out a new path. She said she looks forward to tackling different races and squaring off against new competition.
“If you’ve won the races before, then you always feel like you have to win them again,” Keller said. “Otherwise you feel like you didn’t get any better. In high school, it starts all over again, you’re with these new people.”
She’ll likely be one of St. Anthony’s top runners as a freshman this fall, but she won’t forget all the memories made while running for Sacred Heart.
Keller said it’s hard to pick a favorite, but of her eight titles, the very first, back in 2009, still holds special meaning. Unlike the cross country meet, where coaches and parents can meet with runners before the race begins, the track finals offered only isolation and discomfort.
“I ran the cross country (meet) first, it’s all there on the grass and everybody can be there before the starting line,” Keller said. “But at the track they have a big stadium and no coaches or anybody can go down there.
“I had to go down there by myself, it was different for me. I was more nervous, but I had Peter there so he could go down with me.”
After Peter helped calm her nerves and inspire the wide-eyed fifth grader, Keller’s state championship did the same for her older brother. He went out and captured his own state title in the 1600 later that day, becoming the first siblings to win the same event at the same state meet.
From the first few laps at the YMCA, to a pressure-packed race in Peoria, the two are still racing through the record books.
Braden Layer can be reached at 217-347-7151, ext. 123, or at firstname.lastname@example.org