Keira D’Amato Credit: Tony D’Amato

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Keira D’Amato’s fourth grade teacher didn’t think she was being ambitious enough.

As part of a class assignment at Waples Mill Elementary School in Oakton, the teacher asked students to draw a picture and write down what they wanted to be when they grew up. D’Amato’s goal was simple: She dreamed of becoming a professional athlete.

“I think you’re selling yourself short,” D’Amato remembers her teacher saying. “Why don’t you choose, like, doctor or the first woman president or something? I was like, ‘Nope, I want to be a professional athlete.’”

Two and a half decades later, D’Amato is as close to being a sponsored professional runner as she’s ever been. The 35-year-old Northern Virginia native and American University cross country and track and field alumna is setting personal bests and running world-class times more than a decade after her last official track meet—all while working 40-plus hours a week as a realtor and parenting two young children.

Last month, a video of her running 5,000 meters in 15 minutes and 4 seconds—an Olympic qualifying time—during a time trial on a track in Richmond, Virginia, went viral. The FloTrack video titled, “35-Year-Old Mom Runs OLYMPIC Standard 5K!” has nearly 90,000 views, and D’Amato’s effort was mentioned in the Washington Post and Runner’s World, among other publications, many of which focused on the fact that she is a mother. She also became just the seventh woman 35 and over in history to run a sub 15:05 5K, according to FloTrack.

Despite the fact that races are canceled and international events like the Tokyo Olympics are postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, D’Amato continues to run and train as if nothing has changed in her schedule. Friends have questioned why she’s working out so hard without any races. Her results at time trials are not official and do not qualify her for any events, including the Olympics. But running fast gives D’Amato a sense of control.

“It’s kind of sticking it to the man a little bit,” she says. “It’s like, OK, COVID, you have shut everything down and you really destroyed a lot of things and made this really hard on everybody, but you’re not gonna stop me … You shut down all the races. I don’t need a race. I’ll do it on the track by myself. That’s fine.”

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D’Amato and her husband, Tony, enjoy watching track meets on TV whenever they can.

She remembers when, after catching coverage of the women’s 100-meter race at the 2012 London Olympics, the two of them raced each other in front of their townhouse just for fun. But seeing professional women compete on the biggest stage made her wonder, “What if?”

“I loved watching it, but there’s always that part that’s like, that should be me, right? Like I didn’t get that chance to really see what I could do, and it was just, it was a little bit hard to swallow,” D’Amato explains.

After finishing as a four-time all-American and an 11-time Patriot League individual champion at American University, D’Amato ran her last official track meet and hung up her racing spikes in 2008, when an ankle injury forced her away from the sport. A surgery followed, and D’Amato moved on to the next phase of her life. She and Tony have two children, a 5-year-old son, Tommy, and a 3-year-old daughter, Quin, and currently live just outside of Richmond, in Midlothian, Virginia.

D’Amato felt her identity shift. “I had to learn how to kind of, like, forgive myself and let it go that I didn’t reach those goals,” she says.

It wasn’t until she finished the 2017 Richmond Marathon in 2:47—two minutes off the qualifying time for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials—that she realized she had unfinished business and a second chance at being a professional in the sport.

This February, she placed 15th at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta with a personal best time of 2:34:24. D’Amato also finished 20th at the Houston Half Marathon in January with a time of 1:10:01, and was supposed to represent Team USA at the World Athletics Half Marathon Championships in Poland at the end of March. The race has since been postponed until October.

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Races occasionally pay for D’Amato’s entry fees, and Potomac River Running, a D.C.-area running shoe store, provides her shoes, but otherwise she pays for travel and hotels on her own. Unlike many of the women she competes against, D’Amato is not a sponsored, professional athlete.

“I would love to be supported,” D’Amato says. “Financially, it would really help and take a burden off my family. There are so many ways a sponsor could help me even more, but I also know that I’ve gotten this far without one. So I can keep doing it this way, that’s fine. But … if the right sponsor came along, that would be awesome, too.”

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The night before the 5K time trial, Tony reached out to their mutual friend Brandon Miles with a request.

Miles, who was a high school track teammate of Tony’s, has years of experience filming track races as the live events coordinator for MileSplit, a website covering high school track owned by the sports-streaming service FloSports. With no official races currently happening, Tony wondered if he would be interested in filming his wife run a solo time trial. Miles had already filmed another workout video of D’Amato in April.

“I know Keira’s been putting in a lot of hard work training,” Tony says. “For an athlete, you don’t get many chances to show your fitness on that stage, and given there wouldn’t be a huge crowd there or anything, and with races canceled … this was a great opportunity to showcase Keira .… She is in the best shape of her life, might as well get a video of it.”

Miles didn’t hesitate in agreeing. “I jumped at the opportunity,” he says.

D’Amato set her alarm for 5 a.m. the next morning, but was awakened by one of her children nearly an hour earlier due to an incident in the bathroom. There was, as D’Amato describes, “poop everywhere.”

“I’m in there, like, cleaning that up, and I’m thinking, I really hope this means it’s going to go well today,” she laughs. “I hope this is a sign. Get the crappy part out of the way in the morning.”

Shortly after, D’Amato left her house for the track at St. Christopher’s School, and warmed up with her training partners, Silas Frantz and Emily Mulhern, before the time trial. Frantz, a former Georgetown University track athlete, had agreed to pace D’Amato for the 5K, and the two had been running weekly track workouts together for about a year, until Frantz moved to Charlottesville, Virginia, recently.

Also in attendance that morning was D’Amato’s coach, Scott Raczko, and a group of about a dozen runners from a local running club who had just happened to cut through the track during their run.

By 7 a.m., D’Amato and Frantz were off. Frantz says he was told to run between 73 and 74 seconds per lap. D’Amato set a personal record of 16:09.86 in the 5,000 meters back in June 2006, but she went into her time trial believing she could run near the 15-minute mark. 

D’Amato crossed the finish line to cheers from the small crowd gathered, and checked her watch before putting her hands on her knees. The time didn’t surprise her, but the overwhelming response from the running community did. 

“It was a little surreal,” she says. “I wasn’t expecting that at all. And then it was a little bit confusing because, like, I couldn’t figure out if it was my age and that I’m a mom and I’m a realtor that was the headline or was it the time that was the headline … But also, I think that part of that attention was that there’s literally nothing else going on. I picked a really great time to have a standout moment.”

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In lieu of races, D’Amato has been running solo time trials to test her fitness or pacing other runners. Two weeks after the 5K time trial, she ran a personal best of 4:33 in the mile. In May, she helped Virginia high school runner Caroline Bowe break 5 minutes in the same distance. D’Amato averages about 70 to 100 miles a week, which is down from the 100 to 130 miles she runs weekly during a marathon training cycle.

When races return, she wants to be ready. “I keep telling people, I’m not getting any younger,” D’Amato says. “I’m going to do it when I can, and that’s now.” 

Her next goals include representing Team USA at a competition, winning a national title, and setting more personal bests. She will eventually invest in some track spikes.

Frantz, her training partner, has even bigger ambitions for D’Amato.

“I think she can make the Olympics if things go really well,” he says. “I don’t think we would expect that necessarily, but I see no reason why she shouldn’t have an equal chance as other women in the country of making the 5K or 10K [teams]. They’re high goals, but I think they’re appropriate.”

D’Amato tears up at her friend’s words. All her childhood dreams, she says, “are back up for grabs.”