Keely Small has all the tools to build an incredible career
A large photo hangs from the wall of Keely Small’s bedroom in suburban Canberra. It was taken back in 2012, a moment frozen in time as Small broke the tape at a 5k race, winning the open women’s event at the age of 12 (earlier in the year at the age of 11 she came 2nd in the 5k at the Canberra Marathon after running a 17:48). What’s more remarkable is that Small was defending the title she won in 2011. A beaming smile covers her face, happy for that single moment. At that age Small couldn’t possibly have foreseen all the successes that lay ahead for her.
“My mum loves this photo, she won’t let me take it down because she says it’s a reminder of how happy I was here.
That’s what running still is to me, it just brings me so much joy and happiness. I don’t ever want to see it as a job”.
Under the photo on her wall sit two medals. The first represents her participation in the 800m at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, where she ran a PB of 2:00.81 in her heat, a remarkable performance for a 16 year old competing against the dominant Caster Semenya.
Next to that medal is Small’s finest achievement to date. A gold medal earned in the 800m at the 2018 Youth Olympics in Argentina, a meet where Small also had the honour of being the flag bearer for the Australian team.
“To carry the Australian flag was a real honour and a privilege, and then going on to compete for my country, the whole thing was an incredible experience."
If being named the flag bearer was an honour, it also served to put additional pressure on Small, who understands that consistency is and performing well under pressure is something that will be expected of her as she continues her rise in the Australian rankings.
“In the past I haven’t always handled the pressure and that’s probably just due to my age and feeling like I have to be competitive with the seniors. Being able to compete against girls my own age I didn’t feel that type of pressure I’ve felt in big meets, but as the top seed after the heats I felt a different pressure - to go in and dominate. Winning gold was a great acknowledgement of all the hard work and the time that we put in, everything that Philo did to prepare me.”
The next step on Small’s road to Tokyo is to qualify for the 2019 World Championships in Doha. To do that, she’ll need to better the 2:00.81 PB she set in the Commonwealth Games, and hit the 2:00.60 standard. It helps that the 800m is one of the most competitive events in Australian athletics at the moment, with Georgia Griffith (2:00.13), Brittany McGowan (2:00.24), Carley Thomas (2:01.13), and Morgan Mitchell (Rio Olympian in the 400m) all competing with Small.
“I've never been one to chase times. I run best when I'm not worried about times, when I'm just racing for the win."
When talking with Small about her achievements, she’s quick to deflect any praise the way of her support team, particularly her coach, Dr. Philo Saunders. A former elite athlete himself, Saunders is widely regarded in Australian athletics as a coach who has a special connection to his athletes.
“One of the things i love about having Philo as a coach is that he’s out there with me, he does the same sessions that I do at his pace. So usually whatever he’s feeling, I’m feeling it too.
He has a way of relating to his athletes. It’s good to have a coach that can come with me on my long runs.”
There’s more to Small’s support network than her coach. Her dad, Newton, is her number one supporter - he travels around the world to watch Small race, and does the hard yards on a bike when she does her long runs. Small is also spending more time at the Australian Institute of Sport recently for things like physio and load management analysis.
On the verge of becoming an ‘adult’, I wonder if Small feels like she missed out on anything growing up, or did she feel like a normal teenager (who just happens to have some pretty special medals on her dresser)?
“I think early on when my friends were starting to do things outside of school like go to the movies or whatever, I wanted to do that stuff. But once I started getting results, and especially after the Comm Games, I realised that everything is worth it.
It’s a busy schedule trying to train and study. My weekends are normally spent catching up on study I miss during the week. In the off season I get to spend some time with a close group of friends.”
The overwhelming impression of Keely Small is how mature and articulate she is, and not just for a 17 year old. She’s intelligent, self-aware, and actively looks for learning opportunities. A prodigious talent as a high schooler, imagine what Small will be capable of when she can focus on athletics.