Track & FieldNews

After a Dominating Marathon Debut at the Olympic Trials, Fiona O’Keeffe is Ready to Take on the World in Paris

by Rich Sands

Fiona O'Keeffe celebrates after placing first at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Marathon on Feb. 3, 2024 in Orlando, Fla. (Photo by Getty Images)

The first time Fiona O’Keeffe thought she might someday be an Olympian was during a middle school assembly when a local high school track coach spoke to her class. “He said, ‘In this room is a future Olympian.’ And for some reason I was like, I think that could be me,” she says with a laugh. “Probably five other kids in the room were thinking the same thing, but I think that’s when the seed was planted with me.”

Little more than a decade later, that seed bloomed on Feb. 3 when O’Keeffe courageously surged to the lead at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials — Marathon in Orlando, Florida, and went on to win the 26.2-mile race. She secured her spot for this summer’s Olympic Games Paris 2024 in her debut at the distance, a remarkable achievement.

O’Keeffe had shown potential as far back as middle school, around the time of that eye-opening assembly. “It was always fun for me, and I was always competitive with it, even though I didn’t train seriously at that age,” she says. “But I took the racing seriously.”

She grew up in Davis, California, on the outskirts of Sacramento, where she was a state champion in high school won the U.S. Under-20 title in the 5000 meters in 2016. She was an All-American at the Stanford University and was the 2019 Pac-12 cross country champion for the Cardinal. Since turning pro and joining the Puma Elite Running Team in Raleigh, North Carolina, O’Keeffe has thrived with a heavier volume of training. 

She qualified for the Olympic Trials with a half marathon clocking, and though she was in uncharted territory in Orlando, she was far from a dark horse. Over the past few years her performances on the track and in road races have established her as one of the country’s top distance prospects. 

“I guess I have a feeling that I am better the longer the distances go,” the 26-year-old O’Keeffe says of the confidence that allowed her to start pushing the pace in the 15th mile of the Trials race. “I’ve always been a very competitive person, so I’ve been willing to put myself into situations,” adding with a laugh, “even when it doesn’t pay off.”

By 19 miles O’Keeffe had broken away from the pack. Though American record holder Emily Sisson was rallying behind her, O’Keeffe’s victory was never in doubt over the final miles. She finished in 2 hours, 22 minutes and 10 seconds, breaking the Olympic Trials record by almost three and a half minutes. Sisson (2:22:42) and Dakotah Lindwurm (2:25:31) finished second and third and will join her in Paris.

“I was trying to go off my internal gauges and I was feeling pretty good at that point,” O’Keeffe says of her unplanned surge — which began much earlier than her coaches, Alistair and Amy Cragg, had advised. “We’d slowed down and it seemed like nobody was pinging it. So at first I went to the front thinking that, OK, I’ll do some leading and the somebody else will probably take over. But it ended up being just me out there. So once I realized that I had the lead, I wanted to start pushing it so that we were running honest.”

Fiona O'Keeffe runs through the course at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Team Trials - Marathon on Feb. 3, 2024 in Orlando, Fla. (Photo by Getty Images)

She recorded a negative split, covering the second half of the race over a minute faster than the first, an incredible feat on a hot day. Her time makes her the 10th fastest American woman of all time on a record-eligible course.

“I guess I was surprised with the way that it happened,” O’Keeffe says. “I did believe that I had a shot at making the team and I wanted to put myself in a strong position in the race. I was pretty confident in the build-up that we had, but you never know how a race is going to play out. And I certainly wasn’t expecting to walk away with the win.”

Her coaches knew something special was likely given how well she handled the training block leading up to the race. “Pretty much everything we threw at Fiona that you have to be good at, she handled no problem,” Amy Cragg, a two-time Olympian for Team USA, told Runner’s World. “It just came so naturally for her.”

Plans for the marathon kicked into high gear last summer, after a staph infection in her ankle sidelined her from the USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships, where she would have been a favorite to make the team for the World Athletics Championships in the 10,000 meters based on her personal best of 30:52.77.

By mid-July O’Keeffe resumed training and in October she was fit enough to represent Team USA at the World Road Running Championships in Riga, Latvia. “It was good to get that experience on the international stage,” she says of her 11th-place finish. “I wouldn’t say that I was as prepared as possible for a 5K on the road at that moment in time. But it was still really cool to travel and be part of Team USA and feel myself into that international level.”

That experience, combined with the confidence of her Olympic Trials win, could translate to something special in Paris. In fact, Americans have an exceptional history in championship marathons, dating back to Joan Benoit Samuelson’s gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. Deena Kastor (2004) and Molly Seidel (2021) won Olympic bronze medals and Cragg earned bronze at the 2017 world championships.

Unlike some of the big city races, which feature pacemakers and go-for-broke tempos, the Olympics and world championships often become tactical, with strategy just as important as speed. So even though the world record of 2:11:53, set by Ethiopia’s Tigst Assefa in Berlin last year, is more than six minutes faster than any American has ever run, a smart race plan can lead to the podium.

“It’ll be interesting to see exactly what the field looks like,” O’Keeffe says. “That will definitely be telling. Obviously the world record is insane right now, so if it’s an extremely fast race, we’ll see. But I do feel like the Americans, like Amy and Molly, have been able to run intelligent races, so putting myself in there and also hopefully working with the other Americans in the field, I definitely feel like we could have a shot at a medal.”