Since winning the national high school cross country meet 19 days ago, Erin Keogh has been asked hundred of questions by scores of reporters, running enthusiasts and friends. But one obvious question riles the junior from Langley High, who usually is as shy and quiet as they come: What's next? How about the Olympics?
"There they go again," she said recently in a teacher's room at school. She looked across the table at her coach, Tim Dowd, pointed to the Langley school newspaper in front of her, then motioned Dowd to intercede.
"Anyone who thinks this means we are now training for the Olympics is crazy," said Dowd, reading a quote of his from the lead story about Keogh. "Why is everyone so goal-oriented? Can't Erin just enjoy this victory for a year before worrying about the next one?"
One can't help but think of the possibility of her running in the first women's 5,000-meter run in the 1988 Olympic Games. Keogh, now 16, would be a couple of years stronger and more experienced and, should she continue to improve as she has the last two seasons, she could be a contender.
"Around here, we talk of immediate goals," her mother Amber said. "Like now, we're talking about college. As far as the Olympics, we don't talk specifically, but we think it's great, though it's kind of far off in the future."
There is no better indication of Erin Keogh's potential than three weeks ago. Her victory in the national meet was just the icing on her cake of a season in which she handled every race with apparent ease, including her 24-second victory over the nation's top girls distance runners.
She had little trouble dropping the rest of the nation's 32 elite runners and displayed what has become typical of her races the last two years, a period in which she has lost only once, a fifth-place effort in last year's national meet. She led from the start and pulled away after three-quarters of a mile.
"When she made her initial move, I realized how afraid the other kids were to go with her," Dowd said.
Keogh sensed that the pace wasn't very fast (2:32 after 800 meters), in part, Dowd said, because no one girl was an outright favorite, which has been the case in the past.
"Erin was very nervous before the race," Dowd said. "She said, 'I can't wait for the first half-mile.' She doesn't like to be in a pack."
Dowd calls it "competitive claustrophobia," a fear also shared by some of the world's top runners, including Mary Decker Slaney.
"I like to go out fast at the beginning to get out of the pack and I just tried to keep it up," Keogh said. "If nobody is really that close after two miles, I figure the race is pretty much over."
But at San Diego, Dowd said Keogh "had a nightmare -- I mean a 'daymare' -- during the last 100 yards of the race because last year she was passed right before the finish by Donna Combs of Kentucky ."
"I felt sure that some kicker[Suzy Favor from Wisconsin] would catch me at the end," said Keogh, who has comparatively little speed. Dowd explained that at cross country camp last July, he and Keogh had seen Favor display the speed that earned her the junior national championship in the 1,500 meters. "I said to Erin, 'If you're going to beat her, you'd have to have a heck of a lead.' "
She did, and won in 16 minutes 43.8 seconds, less than one-tenth of a second of the 1983 course record, an average pace of 5:23.8 per mile for 3.1 miles over hills and through trails. But meet records don't mean a thing to Dowd, he said. What impressed him, along with other Keogh observers, was Keogh's incredible solo run of 10:21 for 3,200 meters three days later at the trials of the Patriot Invitational at George Mason University.
The challenge now for Dowd is to keep Keogh from burning herself out. By running at Mason last week, she easily qualified for the regional indoor track meet at the end of February, probably the next major race she will run.
"I'm going to start training hard," Keogh said.
"No, you're not," Dowd said.
"She works so hard. She's found the secrets of concentration and self discipline," said Amber Keogh, adding that the morning after the national meet, Erin awoke at 4:30 to run so she could catch a 7 a.m. flight home.
Which is why people are asking her about the future, the Olympics. "I concentrate only on the next meet," she answered. But someday, that may be the Olympics. "I'll worry about that then," she said.