Life has been good for Natalie O’Keefe since she joined the Southwest Baptist women’s track and field team during her freshman year.
After two years, O’Keefe has been the Bearcats’ top performer in the high jump. The Granite City graduate earned a pair of All-American awards and is the school’s record holder in the event in indoor competition.
“Natalie is beyond athletic performances,” Southwest Baptist coach Corey McElhaney said. “She’s a type of person all coaches would love to have on their team. She has great character and has a great personality and great for the other team members to be around. She’s a natural leader and she also, in terms of work ethic, wants to get better. She’s always asking what she can do and she’s a joy to have on the team.”
Now, O’Keefe is setting her sights on bigger and better things for the next two years.
“I hope to jump higher; I want to keep working toward 5-10 and to graduate,” O’Keefe said.
O’Keefe wrapped up her sophomore season in style on May 22. She earned her second All-American award after finishing fifth in 5 feet, 8 inches in the high jump at the NCAA Division II National Outdoor Track and Field Championships at Allendale, Mich.
“I’m excited,” O’Keefe said. “It’s a great experience. I love our coaches here at SBU and was really pleased that I could perform well at nationals.”
O’Keefe was one of two Southwest Baptist athletes who earned All-American honors at the outdoor national meet. The other was Elizabeth Luckel, who finished sixth in the 1,500.
“She was super-excited,” McElhaney said. “The high jump, in any given day, anyone can jump higher or jump lower. It’s all about how you feel on that day. It’s not as much like the running events to where there’s not going to be as much variation. If your legs don’t feel as good as in the jumps, you may not jump as high that day.”
McElhaney said he wasn’t surprised O’Keefe earned all-American honors at the outdoor meet.
“That was the goal,” the Southwest Baptist coach said. “Her expectations and our expectations are high because of the potential that she has. The heights that she’s jumped are kind of right there in the national scene. They should be coming in the national scene every year.”
O’Keefe came within an inch of qualifying for indoor nationals on Feb. 28. She jumped a 5-7 in her sixth-place finish at the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship meet at the University of Central Missouri.
“At conference, I almost cleared 5-8,” O’Keefe said. “The bar bounced and then fell off. I needed 5-8 to get in.”
Had she jumped a 5-8, O’Keefe would have competed at indoor nationals for the second year in a row.
“She was upset that she didn’t get to go to nationals indoor and it kind of lit a fire under her,” McElhaney said. “This year, in outdoor, she was one bar from getting third place.”
When she was a freshman, O’Keefe earned her first All-American honor after placing fifth with a jump of 5-8 at the indoor national meet at Winston-Salem, N.C. She also broke a school record in the high jump, jumping a 5-9.25 in her second-place finish at an indoor meet at Missouri Southern.
O’Keefe also plays basketball at Southwest Baptist. She played a total of 31 games in two seasons.
“High jumping and playing basketball seem to go well together,” O’Keefe said. “That’s what I’ve always done in high school, so it was pretty natural to keep doing it in college. It’s busy sometimes, but I really enjoy both sports.”
O’Keefe graduated from Granite City in 2013. When she was a senior, she earned all-state honors in the high jump after placing eighth. O’Keefe also played with the Warrior girls’ basketball team all four years.
O’Keefe earned an athletic and academic scholarship at Southwest Baptist, which is located in Bolivar, Mo., just 33 miles north of Springfield.
“I really enjoy college,” said the 20-year-old O’Keefe, who is majoring in art. “I love the friends that I made here. Our track team is great. I have built a lot of relationships while I’ve been here and I feel really blessed.”