Liberty senior Ashley Kealamakia has a history of making major cuts to her time in the 800 meters.
Saturday, she made her biggest improvement on the biggest stage of all. Kealamakia won the 800 at the Chandler Rotary meet in 2:13.78, four seconds faster than her previous personal best
“I was nervous the whole week. I just wanted to cut down time,” Kealamakia said. “I was going against girls who had beat me before. When I won the race, it actually took me some time to realize I had done it. The race itself was cool because I got to beat the girls that I was super competitive with.”
Her time is the fifth best in the nation this year, Liberty girls track coach Mark Rituper said. Her performance also earned her the title of outstanding girl’s track athlete at Arizona’s biggest meet.
“I was in the car with by parents, we’d driven about two minutes away, and coach Rituper calls my mom and tells us to come back because I was named outstanding girls athlete,” Kealamakia said. “My parents were freaking out, they were so happy. I got onto the track right in time — they were announcing (Chandler’s) Jasmine Todd as the outstanding field events girl — and I got out there and they said, ‘there she is.’”
Rituper said Kealamakia tends to drop time suddenly and in four-minute blocks. In all, she’s shaved 21 seconds off her 800-meter time as a freshman.
He started working with her as a freshman, and coming off her solid showing in cross country, Rituper thought the natural races for her were the 1,600 and possibly the 3,200 along with the 800.
But Kealamakia never took to those races and never thought of herself as a distance runner. She said cross country was a suggestion by her parents as a way to stay in shape for track season.
Elizabeth Kealamakia, who along with her husband, Terry, ran at Weber State University, had another suggestion late in her daughter’s freshman year — letting her try the 400.
“As a freshman she was gung-ho about everything. She wanted to run anything we could put her in. I thought the mile and two-mile and she ran great times,” Rituper said. “Her mom said, ‘Why don’t you run her in the 400,’ and I said ‘Why not?’ We put her in it at an invitational and she placed second or third against varsity-caliber kids.”
She quickly gravitated to the middle distance races, but found she lacked the speed of elite 400-meter runners. That made the 800 her focal point.
Kealamakia arrived as a contender her junior year, finishing second in the 4A-II meet to Phoenix Arcadia’s Tess Berghoff. Her near miss helped fuel this year’s improvement.
But the biggest motivating factor has been trying to catch recruiter’s eyes. Her junior times were solid, but only her parents’ alma mater offered her a scholarship prior to the season.
“I’ve always wanted to run in college, even if I didn’t get a scholarship,” Kealamakia said. “My parents both ran in college and I’ve always wanted to do what they did. Now that it’s closer, it’s really driven me. At the beginning of this year, I knew I needed to cut down time if I really wanted to get looked at.”
The addition of assistant coach Brian McAllister to Liberty’s staff helped make that college-quality time possible, said Kealamakia and Rituper. McAllister is a former NAU runner who specializes in training middle-distance runner.
“We recruited another coach who’s been out of coaching for a while. He has a great way of working with 400 and 800-meter runners. That’s what he specializes in,” Rituper said. “We brought him in to work with them so that coach Bacon and I could concentrate on different places. The workouts he puts them through puts them at the times they should be running at the meets. Our boys 800 times have dropped this season.”
Since she’s closer to the boys 800 runners in time, Kealamakia often works out with them. Rituper said she holds her own against the guys.
On April 8 and 9, Kealamakia will face plenty of girls that can keep up with her during the Arcadia Invitational in California. The meet brings together the best from 27 states and two foreign countries.
Another top time there could open up Kealamakia’s college possibilities even more. Rituper said. He contacted BYU, Utah and Oregon after her performance Saturday, and all are intrigued.
The main issue is whether she can cut her time in the 400 or the 1,600.
“Utah said if she can get her 400 time down to a 56 or 57, we can talk scholarship money because a 2:13 is very good,” Rituper said. “BYU is showing interest, and I’m going to talk to Oregon, who’s a long shot because they’re so good at everything they do.”
After Chandler and Arcadia, winning her first state championship might seem like a breeze. But Sahuarita’s Adrianna Woletz could be tough competition in Division III. And if Chinle’s Rolonda Jumbo and Rio Rico’s Aeoleone Bristow are talented enough to be threats if they add the 800 to their distance events.
College is a certainty for Kealamakia, whether she earns a track scholarship. Rituper said she’s earned As in all but one of her high school classes, and takes several advanced placement courses.
She wants to follow her mother’s lead outside of sports, as well.
“I’ve always wanted to get into the medical field. I’m not completely sure what, but right now it’s radiology,” Kealamakia said. “My mom’s in the medical field and it seems stable. In radiology, you don’t have to deal with all the blood and gore.”