Hardship solidifies faith for Tigers' Keehn
By KLINT SPILLER
For a man who has achieved monumental feats, Fort Hays State University sophomore cross country runner Cory Keehn doesn't take credit for any of them.
Keehn has been an instigator for a long string of firsts for the FHSU cross country teams this season.
He became the first Tiger to qualify for nationals since Bridget Brown in 2006 and the first male to qualify since Daryn Parker and Dale Dexter in 2003.
Two weeks prior to that, Keehn finished first at the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association championships. It was the first individual league title since FHSU transitioned to NCAA Division II.
Not only that, but he helped the men clinch the school's first team title since joining the league in 2006. The last time the men's team had won a league title was in 1987 when the Tigers won the Central State Intercollegiate Conference.
He's done more in two years than some of FHSU's best long distance runners in the past decade have accomplished in four.
Despite all of that, Keehn credits God for everything -- and Keehn, a deeply faithful man, means it.
"It's been kind of surprising to myself with what I've been able to do, but it's not through my strength, because I know that strength comes from God," Keehn said.
Keehn, who will compete Saturday at the NCAA Division II Cross Country Championships in Joplin, Mo., has endured a long journey, and the road hasn't been covered in roses and dandelions.
He's overcome hardship, and yet that hardship didn't drive him away from his faith. It only strengthened it.
Waking up from a dream
When Keehn was younger, he experienced what he called "dizzy spells."
"Ever since I was little I've had spells where I feel real dizzy or faint and kind of nauseated like I was in a dream or trance or something like that," Keehn said. "We never really knew what it was."
As he got older, the dizzy spells grew more frequent. He started having them four to five times a day.
An MRI revealed a brain tumor.
Keehn, only an eighth grader at the time, admitted he was angry at first.
"I remember that night hearing about it," Keehn said. "I was sitting on my bed, and I was really frustrated. I was almost yelling at God, saying 'Why? Why are you doing this? Don't you know I have all these dreams in my life?' "
Over time, Keehn's anger cooled, and he started praying.
The doctors eventually removed the tumor successfully, and he's been tumor-free ever since. However, the experience still impacted his life.
"I kind of gave it up to him right then and there," he remembered. "I said, 'I have dreams and I have plans for my life, but ultimately, you know what is best for me and I want to serve you.' "
Running with purpose
Keehn, a former Class 2A state champion in cross country at Holton-Jackson Heights and 1,600-meter run champion at state track, said now he doesn't run for his own glory.
In fact, his main goal wasn't to qualify for nationals. His main intention for his running has been to use it to help others and encourage them.
For instance, ever since high school, when he finishes a race, he doesn't revel in his winning, his effort or anything like that. He immediately turns around and seeks out his competitors to shake their hands.
"It's kind of a small gesture, but not many athletes do it," Keehn said. "I just like to be able to encourage my other competitors, because running isn't everything."
FHSU head coach Jason McCullough said Keehn doesn't add any extra pressure for himself. When the stakes are the highest, he said Keehn takes advantage of the opportunity and performs his best.
"I think it has to do with his desire to improve and do things right," McCullough said. "He doesn't take anything for granted because of his past and his health history."
Keehn said his faith drives him in races.
"I know what I'm doing right now is not coming from me," Keehn said. "Honestly, I don't think my body should be able to run as fast as it does. There's a freedom in me when I run that I know I'm doing this as an act of worship toward God. It frees me up. I do it because I enjoy it, and I let God do the rest."
An opportunity for another first
McCullough said Keehn sticks with his assigned workouts and doesn't attempt to push his limits to make himself better. He just does everything right.
McCullough said Keehn is one of the first ones to show up and one of the last to leave, following the pre-workout stretching and post-workout recovering guidelines to the "T" and monitoring his diet and sleep to keep himself rejuvenated.
"He doesn't waste time doing frivolous things," McCullough said. "He takes everything seriously and trains to the best of his ability."
McCullough said he thinks Keehn has a chance to be earn all-American honors with a top-40 finish Saturday, which is something a FHSU runner hasn't done since Dexter and Parker in 2003.
Keehn finished third in the NCAA Division II Central Regional, but other regions boast strong runners, especially the South Central region which includes schools from the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference.
"I think he can run with some of those guys," McCullough said. "Hopefully he gets in there and mixes it up a little bit."
However he finishes, Keehn said he will continue to follow the path God has created for him.
"Ultimately, I just want to serve God in any way I can," Keehn said. "Right now, he is using my passion and my love for running to do that, and I'm going to continue to do that until he leads me elsewhere."