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UNM’s Keller moves fast: From Ruidoso to NCAAs in one year

Two years ago, it might have been hard for Shalom Keller to fathom that she would occupy her current position.

A freshman at the University of New Mexico, Keller will run the 400-meter leg of the distance medley relay (DMR) today for the Lobos at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships at Texas A&M’s Gilliam Indoor Track Stadium in College Station, Texas.

She will be the lone home-state product of a dozen Lobos who are competing in four individual events and both DMRs.

“It still hasn’t completely kicked in,” Keller said. “I’m kind of just taking it day by day. I know when it comes I’m going to be like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ It still doesn’t seem real to be able to go to nationals as a freshman. It’s definitely exciting and overwhelming all at once. It’s a bunch of mixed emotions.”

It was, however, a process to get to this point.

Keller missed her entire junior campaign at Ruidoso High School due to an extra (accessory) navicular bone in her foot and a jaw injury, both of which required surgery. That absence meant that college recruiters weren’t as present as she would have liked. It was a trying time, to say the least.

“I had a lot of complications from both of those surgeries. I was out for a while,” Keller said. “I couldn’t get my heart rate up. I couldn’t do anything.”

Keller put together a serious bounce-back effort during her senior year, taking first place in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dash events at the Class 4A State Championships. Along the way, Keller, who had been looking into other schools, was able to catch the eye of the UNM coaches.

“My junior year when I had my surgery, it was hard getting recruited because I was out,” she said. “Then toward the midseason or end of my senior year I had gotten a lot of offers. I was going to sign to a different college before I came to UNM. … My parents told me to wait. I just prayed about it, thought about it for a few days. I just felt like this is where I’m supposed to be. Everything just worked out.”

Fast forward to today, and Keller is the lone New Mexico product of a group that set a school record (10 minutes, 57.77 seconds) in the distance medley relay to earn a No. 3 seed at the NCAA Indoor Championships. Keller’s running mates during the season were Kieran Casey, Alondra Negrón Texidor and Ednah Kurgat.

Kurgat might not compete in the relay, as she has qualified in the 3,000 and 5,000 meters as well. UNM press releases already are saying it will be Charlotte Prouse in Kurgat’s place. Casey will run 1,200 meters, Keller 400, Texidor 800 and Prouse 1,600 in that case.

Different lineups are not uncommon for the distance medley relay in the postseason, said UNM assistant Rich Ceronie.

“You qualify a team, so you could put four new people in there if you wanted to. So we actually don’t really know who we’re racing against,” Ceronie said. “Until 10 minutes before the event, you don’t know who’s running, because that’s when they have to check in. That’s why it’s sort of unique.”

What’s not a mystery is Keller’s emergence as an integral part of that unit. Competing against older, more developed athletes as a freshman isn’t an easy task.

“I think at the beginning I beat myself down a lot because I wasn’t competing with the top girls,” Keller said. “I had to step back and take this as a learning experience. I had to just get back into it and get focused on my goals and everything I wanted to accomplish.”

As the season progressed, Keller has proven to be up to the challenge.

“As a freshman the transition is very challenging in the sprint world because it’s really based on power and strength,” Ceronie said. “She’s doing a really nice job and each week is getting better and better and better. That’s the progression you want to see from a freshman.”

Perhaps more importantly, Ceronie says Keller has fit in seamlessly with a Lobo squad that includes athletes from 11 states and six countries. Keller was born in Baton Rouge, La., but was adopted by her parents and taken to Ruidoso at 3 weeks old. To say her family is diverse is putting it mildly.

“I have seven siblings counting myself. We’re all different races,” Keller said. “My parents are Hispanic. I have a biracial sister; a brother from India; two brothers that are blond hair, blue eyes; a brother that’s half Hispanic, a brother that’s full Hispanic – so we have a lot of diversity in my family.

“We go into restaurants, we go into stores and people just look at us,” she added. “We’re like, ‘What the heck are they looking at?’ But we forget that we’re all different colors and races. It’s just natural to us.”

Keller’s upbringing has played a significant role in her career path. She is planning to major in psychology with a minor in family and child studies in hopes of becoming an adoption counselor down the road (six of her siblings were adopted). But, in addition to helping her team win at the NCAA Indoor Championships this weekend, Keller has more immediate goals in mind.

If all goes as planned, Keller could find herself in the biggest melting pot of all within two years.

“I’m working toward the 2020 Olympics,” Keller said. “I’m doing everything I can to try to make it there. If I don’t make it, there’s always another year. I don’t want to fall short of doing everything I could to try to make it.”

University of New Mexico freshman Shalom Keller, right, practices with teammate Alondra Negrón Texidor. Today, Keller will be the lone New Mexican representing UNM at the Indoor Championships. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)