‘She’s in a league of her own’: North Liberty standout runner sets the pace on and off the track

Combating pre-race nerves, an unexpected injury, and a lost track and field season has only made two-time track and field state champion and two-time Drake Relays champion Ashlyn Keeney more eager to lift up her teammates and toe the starting line.


Kate Heston

Ashlyn Keeney, a junior at North Liberty High School, poses for a portrait on the Liberty track. Keeney has both state-championship and state-place-winning feats in both cross country and track and field. As a freshman, she earned 1st place in both the 1500 and 3000 at Iowa’s 2019 state track and field meet. She was set to build on this momentum the following year, but lost her sophomore season to COVID-19. Now she is setting her sights on a successful return while remaining team-oriented.

Grace Hamilton, News Reporter

During the first event of her inaugural appearance at the 2019 Iowa High School Track and Field Championships, Ashlyn Keeney crossed Drake Stadium’s finish line as a state champion in the 3000-meter run.

“Crossing the finish line, I remembered feeling really happy and excited for the rest of my events,” the Liberty High School junior said. “I was just happy to be running with all the other girls. That is my favorite part.”

From May 20 to the 22, Drake Stadium’s celebrated “blue oval” will come to life for the 2021 Iowa High School Track and Field Championships after the annual event was called off last year following statewide precautionary COVID-19 cancellations.

Keeney said the interruption, although disappointing, drove her to support her teammates and enjoy her next anticipated appearance at the blue oval more than ever before.

“I knew that the cancellation was what needed to be done to keep everybody safe, so I wasn’t as upset about it as much as I was disappointed,” Keeney said. “Not having a season last year really made me miss all my teammates and showed me how important having a team to support you is. So this year, I’ve just really been trying to focus on the rest of the team.”

While maintaining her status as a leading distance runner in the state after securing a victory in the 1500-meter run at the Drake Relays a month ago, North Liberty Girls Track and Field Coach Keaton Rickels said Keeney devotes much of her focus toward her teammates’ performances.

“At a recent meet, Ashlyn found a whole group of girls that weren’t competing to go over and find time to go support our throwers, who don’t usually get a bunch of teammates that can go watch them,” Rickels said. “She was leading the charge of finding people to go over there and watch them. She’s an all-star who is finding ways to go in and get the focus on other teammates, and I think that is what makes her special.”

Rickels anticipates Keeney’s district meet lineup will include the 3000, 1500, and 800 meter runs in addition to a team relay. The North Liberty track team will compete at the state-qualifying meet on Thursday, hosted at Iowa City West High School.

From mid-distance to long-distance, Rickels said Keeney can regularly deliver a notable performance.

“Her freshman year, she had a stand-out track season where she won the 1500 and 3000 and got second in 800 and Distance Medley at the state meet. A month before that, she won the 3000 at the Drake Relays. It was clear she was going to be special,” he added.

Keeney not only dominates the distance field on the track, however. She has qualified for the State Cross Country Meet each year since her freshman season, earning second and ninth place finishes in her sophomore and junior seasons, respectively.

Tonya McDonough, North Liberty’s head girls’ cross country coach and assistant track coach, has coached Keeney since the seventh grade.

Although her training volume and event versatility has continued to expand each year, McDonough said she is especially impressed by Keeney’s grit.

“Through the cross country season, track and field season, and then also through our summer training, Ashlyn trains year-round. She’s also always had the ability to run everything from a 400 to a 5k, which is pretty amazing,” McDonough said. “But, I would say one area of Ashlyn’s growth this year that really stands out is her mental toughness and ability to be mentally prepared and emotionally prepared for every race that comes.”

North Liberty’s 2020 cross country team encountered training gaps — unable to practice together for weeks at a time due to COVID-19 regulations — McDonough added.

As COVID-19 brought alterations to the 2020 cross country season, Keeney spent time rehabilitating a summer injury in hopes of competing.

“Unfortunately, Ashlyn ended up with a labral tear in her hip and had to then go into physical therapy. She was able to work her way back and was able to compete that season, but unfortunately, we were very limited in the amount of intensity that we could apply during training,” McDonough said.

Despite her injury and training limitations, Keeney finished ninth in the state meet.

“You know, finishing ninth is a dream for most runners — but for Ashlyn, she felt a little bit of a disappointment knowing that her potential is higher than that,” McDonough said.

Her mother, Marisa Keeney, said she thinks the culprit of her daughter’s injury was over-training.

“Because of the pandemic and with nothing going on, she was overtraining because she had too much free time. I think that’s probably what caused it,” she said. “It was a nagging injury that we kept trying to heal while still letting her participate…Running is certainly a big part of who she is, so even if the season looked different for her, she was still able to do what she enjoys and compete at the state meet.”

When the cross country season ended, Keeney took a six-week break from running to focus on physical therapy, Marisa Keeney added.

Although she’s thrilled to step up to the starting line injury-free, Keeney said the most significant challenge she has faced as a runner is not bodily aches and pains.

“I’ve always been super nervous before meets. In elementary school, I used to cry before them. Even during junior high and my freshman year, I kind of dreaded them,” she said. “After meets, I would be like, ‘This is so great, I can’t wait for the next one!’, but before each race, I became so nervous and worried that I just wanted the race to be over. It’s hard to enjoy something you love when you’re constantly worried about it.”

Whether training through a lost sports season, rehabilitating an injury, or soothing performance anxiety, Keeney said reflecting on how running has shaped her helps her press on through all of life’s races.

“The hard work and effort it takes to make yourself better as a runner rubs off into all the other aspects of my life like school and the relationships with my family and friends,” Keeney said. “It gives me a sense of purpose and something to be proud of.”

Still, she doesn’t forget to mention those around her.

“I love my team. [Running] isn’t just about me. I have a whole team I get to focus on, too,” Keeney said. “It’s one of those sports where everyone is friends, even the people you compete with at the starting line.