Fiona O’Keeffe Prepares for the Olympics as an Instant Marathon Phenom

It’s Friday in early March, and the weather in Chapel Hill, N.C., is warm enough to beckon a variety of runners to the Crow Branch Overlook Loop trail. A pair of gray-haired women in tracksuits jog together. Young men and women form a group so large it must be a high school team. And a shirtless man veers off path, running a little too close to an impromptu Footwear News set.

Fresh off a long training run, an unassuming Fiona O’Keeffe is modeling a range of athletic apparel and sneakers from Puma, from race-day attire to a comfortable off-duty set. It’s her first editorial shoot, and while she’s not used to being in front of the camera, she’s gamely trying several poses.

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The 25-year-old Puma-sponsored runner from California’s Sacramento Valley made her marathon debut in February at the U.S. Olympic trials in Orlando, Fla. — and she won the whole thing. Not only was O’Keeffe the first woman to win on her first outing, she also knocked off more than three minutes from the event’s previous record while earning her place at this year’s Summer Olympic Games in Paris.

O’Keeffe’s unprecedented accomplishment immediately thrust her into the spotlight. It isn’t just her inexperience in the marathon that made her win impressive; she’s also significantly younger than most elite runners making their mark in the event. Conventional wisdom says this should be happening as she’s nearing 30 — not just a few years removed from running track-and-field at Stanford University.

“I’m definitely still processing it in a way,” O’Keeffe said while sitting in a clearing just off one of the trail forks where her photos were taken. “Just now, I’m starting to feel like, ‘OK, that really happened.’ But it’s been very, very surreal. As a distance runner, you get used to working hard without much attention, so having all this stuff after has been interesting.”

Fiona O'Keeffe Puma athlete Team USA marathon FN March 25 2024 cover
Fiona O'Keeffe Puma athlete Team USA marathon FN March 25 2024 cover

The narrative that immediately spread — in the sports world and beyond — is that O’Keeffe came out of nowhere. She was an underdog, an overnight sensation. But Amy Cragg, one of the coaches for the Puma Elite Running Team and a two-time Olympic marathon runner, said those more entrenched in the sport had already begun to see her potential. Along with the other coaches on the team, Cragg dared to believe O’Keeffe could put in such a declarative run in her first marathon.

“We thought she was capable of it. According to the training, she should be up there. She could potentially win,’” Cragg said while she was alongside O’Keeffe for the shoot. “But then there’s this little voice in our heads that’s like, ‘You’re crazy, this is nuts, she’s too young, she’s too inexperienced.’ Glad we ignored that one.’”

O’Keeffe grew up in Davis, Calif., a small, affluent city with the University of California’s northern-most campus as its central feature — and no shortage of parks, trails and gardens. Both of her parents ran track in high school, and her mother walked onto the renowned University of Oregon track-and-field team during her freshman year.

O’Keeffe said she started running track as soon as she could by joining her middle school track team in fifth grade. Whether it was in gym class or while practicing for other sports, she loved running. It felt natural to her, a source of freedom and a place for competition. O’Keeffe always sought to be the fastest in her class, and she was.

While still in high school, she won gold for the U.S. under-20 5,000-meter race, competing against college athletes and setting the sixth-best time ever. She also won a state title for the 3,200-meter race and was two-time state cross-country champion before entering Stanford University on an athletic scholarship. Competing there for the track and cross-country teams, O’Keeffe was named All-American six times and won individual and team Pac-12 cross-country championships among a robust list of accomplishments.

Because of the pandemic, O’Keeffe had an extra year of NCAA eligibility after completing her Earth Systems degree at Stanford. She began a graduate program in biology at the University of New Mexico, where she was able to join her sister, but left after a semester to become one of the first two members of the Puma Elite Running Team.

“I was realizing when I was in New Mexico that the part I was enjoying most was just the day-in, day-out training and getting ready for races. The school part wasn’t giving me the same fulfillment,” O’Keeffe said. “I had the opportunity to go run full time. I could always come back to school, but there [was] only this specific window where I was going to be at my best from a competitive standpoint.”

Fiona O'Keeffe Team USA marathon Puma athlete
Fiona O'Keeffe Team USA marathon Puma athlete

Joining the Puma team also required a cross-country move to North Carolina, putting her farther away from her family than she’d ever been and making for a bigger adjustment than she expected. Being in the region known as the Triangle — its three points formed by the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University and Duke University — helped because she was surrounded by so many people near her age.

So, too, did (and does) the culture of the team, which O’Keeffe describes as close- knit and supportive. For the past year, she’s lived with Natosha Rogers, who’s 32 years old and won the 5,000-meter at the
2022 North American, Central American and Caribbean Championships.

Competing in the marathon wasn’t officially in the plan when O’Keeffe joined the Puma team, although Cragg said she could always see the vision. The coach and her husband, Alistair (also a Puma coach), first saw the athlete in action during her college days.

“It’s just the way she kind of bops along. She has a really even stride,” Cragg said of her first impression of O’Keeffe. “She wasn’t afraid to push herself up to the front, to push from the start for 10,000 meters, which for college kids, is a lot. She was willing to ride that line for a long period of time. Those things can lead to a great marathoner.”

Although O’Keeffe continued to focus on shorter races early in her pro career, her major breakthrough came just a year in, at the 2022 Houston Half Marathon. This, too, was her first time competing at the distance — and in what may not be a surprise now, she set records then as well. While finishing fourth overall, O’Keeffe’s time of 1:07:42 gave her the fastest-ever half-marathon debut for an American woman and the fifth-fastest overall for a woman from the U.S.

Still, the full marathon wouldn’t be put on the whiteboard until 2023. When O’Keeffe finally came to her coaches and said she wanted to add the new event, the Cragg couple kept it cool in the meeting before high-fiving each other afterward.

As training formally targeted 26.2 miles and progressed, O’Keeffe immediately and consistently thrived. For Amy, the reflex was to be cautious in what she put on her budding star’s plate in terms of distance and expectations. But the miles continued to pile up, 115 of them in the most prolific week of the run-up to Orlando.

Apart from O’Keeffe’s obvious talent, Cragg said she benefited from the right regimen of training and body maintenance, including massages and chiropractic work. Her Puma Deviate Nitro Elite shoes have been more than a marginal factor. “You get a lot back from them,” O’Keeffe said, referring to the responsiveness of the super shoes. “But it still feels fairly natural to me, and I appreciate that balance.”

Fiona O'Keeffe Team USA marathon Puma athlete
Fiona O'Keeffe Team USA marathon Puma athlete

At a time when nearly every athletic brand is vying for a bigger piece of the running market with bold launches and increased investment, Puma has had to fight even harder for market share. That fight was bolstered in 2021, when the brand re-entered the road-running space, delivering multiple tech-loaded, road-ready styles.

The brand’s origins are as much in track as they are in soccer, with a lineage of sprinters including Tommie Smith and Usain Bolt, but it needed a hard relaunch to connect with a much larger cohort of runners than those who use Puma spikes.

Nitro cushioning, consisting of a foam injected with nitrogen, is a through- line for all of Puma’s running shoes, regardless of price. And whereas most brands designate one super shoe as its top-of-the-line race-day model, Puma has two to encourage choice. (One is more expensive, but the company doesn’t characterize it as superior.)

The second iteration of the Deviate Nitro Elite is on the market now and the third version was worn by O’Keeffe at the Olympic trials. That franchise zeroes in on lightweight propulsion, whereas the (higher-priced) Fast-R Nitro Elite shows less concern for weight in a full-scale bid for propulsion.

“Seeing Fiona and Dakotah [Lindwurm, another Puma runner,] coming in one and three at the Olympic trials was amazing for us, and it’s the sort of underdog mentality we have as a brand,” said Erin Longin, Puma vice president of running and training. “Everybody’s talking about the shoes they are wearing. We’ve got to show that we’ve got credible products that can help athletes achieve that level of greatness.”

Women have been a focal point for Puma’s return to running since the beginning, when its initial range included engineering specifically for female feet on all four styles — an attribute that still isn’t a given in the running market today. The Puma Elite Running Team is also made up primarily of female runners, including Molly Seidel, who took bronze at the 2020 Olympic marathon as the first American woman to medal in the event since 2004.

Fiona O'Keeffe Team USA marathon Puma athlete FN Cover
Fiona O'Keeffe Team USA marathon Puma athlete FN Cover

O’Keeffe is looking to continue the streak of American podium appearances, but she’s well aware that things don’t always go as expected. If it weren’t for a complicated staph infection on her ankle that required surgery, the Olympic trials could have been O’Keeffe’s second marathon, which may not have changed the end result, but would have made for a less gripping narrative.

The story that has crystallized — with O’Keeffe as new phenom — has brought its share of extracurricular duties, such as her FN photo shoot and interview. These responsibilities will likely ramp up before, during and after the Summer Games.

Normally, Cragg would tell a first-time Olympian to enjoy herself and get the most out of the wider experience and spectacle. While she still wants O’Keeffe to do that to an extent, there’s also more of an expectation to dial in.

“I’m excited to see where Team USA can line up against the rest of the world,” O’Keeffe said. “I’m really excited Dakota and Emily [Sisson] will be my teammates there because Emily has experience at the world stage and she’s the American record holder. Hopefully we can all work together to get the highest finish we can.”

Earlier on in O’Keeffe’s training, the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles was seen as the sweet spot for her to compete. She’ll have a few more marathons behind her by then, and in all likelihood, it’s when her peak should be beginning in earnest.

Regardless of what seems feasible, O’Keeffe is looking ahead more holistically. She said she hopes to have a long career in the sport and, above all else, find out just how good she can be.

“It’s a really fun time to be a woman in sport,” she said. “This generation that I’m a part of can set an example for young girls that having a career in sport is something they can dream of, too. I think it’s great if we have more young girls saying they want to be a professional athlete.” Perhaps the next time one of those aspiring young athletes passes by O’Keeffe on the trail, they’ll recognize her.

About the Author:

Ian Servantes is a Senior Trending News Editor for Footwear News specializing in sneaker coverage. He’s previously reported on streetwear and sneakers at Input and Highsnobiety after beginning his career on the pop culture beat. He subscribes to the idea that “ball is life” and doesn’t fuss over his kicks getting dirty.

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