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Mike Keogh: The journey from young immigrant to Olympian

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

Manhattan College's Mike Keogh (left) on the starting line against the late, great Steve Prefontaine of Oregon in the three-mile run at the NCAA outdoor track championships in 1972. Prefontaine won the race, while Keogh took fifth

By Jim Irish

Courtesy photos

Eight-year-old Mike Keogh stood at the railing on the deck of the 1,550-passenger MV Britannic as it steamed into New York Harbor and its horn bellowed in May 1958.

He observed the Statue of Liberty in the distance, but what had “enthralled” him the most during the seven-day voyage from Ireland was tasting pineapple, bananas, and black cherries for the first time in his life on board the ocean liner.

At that point, neither he nor anyone else surmised that this young boy from a poor immigrant family would someday don the Irish track uniform and compete in the Summer Olympic Games.

He had departed Midleton, a small farming community in southeastern County Cork, with his three older brothers, two aunts, and an uncle. His father, Patrick or “Paddy,” a former boxer, mother, Elizabeth, and younger sister, had arrived two years earlier in Newark, N.J. because of a lack of job opportunity in Ireland. Once in America, his parents had repaid their fares to relatives and then scrimped to save enough money to purchase tickets for the remainder of the family.

The immigrant clan of 10 crammed into a two-bedroom apartment of a three-story home in an Italian neighborhood. Keogh shared a bed with his three brothers. Resembling a scene from the “Sopranos,” they lived above the Italian Club, where men gathered all day, drinking Anisette liqueur and coffee and playing cards.

Delivering newspapers on the run at age eight

One month after his arrival, Keogh started a job delivering 400 weekday and 550 Sunday copies of the Newark Star Ledger newspaper in any weather with his father and brothers. He rose between 4 and 4:30 a.m. seven days a week to start work in East Orange. No one missed a day unless he had the flu or a serious health issue. Short and slight of build, Keogh carried 15 newspapers at a time in his arms and ran the streets and up as many as five flights of stairs in apartment buildings. The buildings had elevators, but he chose the stairwells for fear of being mugged. After completing his two-hour workout, he returned home, ate breakfast, and attended elementary school. Keogh endured taunts from other youngsters because of his Irish brogue.

Keogh in the lead in front of Prefontaine about the mile mark in the three-mile run at 1972 NCAAs

After pre-dawn newspaper deliveries with his four sons, Keogh’s father worked three more jobs during the course of the day to provide for the family of 10: elevator operator at Prudential Insurance, tire changer at Firestone, and office cleaner until midnight. Keogh’s mother worked two jobs, including meal preparation for Catholic priests in the nearby rectory of Sacred Heart.

“I had great parents who taught me about a strong work ethic,” Keogh says.

Keogh delivered newspapers for six years until he entered Essex Catholic High School in the ninth grade. His morning job on the run had supplied ample preparation and discipline for a career that would transport him to the pinnacle of the track world.

As a freshman runner, Keogh developed severe pain because of flat feet. His father took him to a podiatrist who constructed inserts of metal wrapped in leather that were as “heavy as hell.” He wore those throughout high school except for races in spikes. Once in college, he switched to Dr. Scholl’s inserts.

In his first varsity season as a sophomore, Keogh proved he was a coming attraction, finishing sixth in the state cross country meet.

Running 11 miles in the darkness before school

Because of missed workouts from a foot injury after cross country that sophomore year, Keogh began running 11 miles from his home in darkness at 5 a.m. in January with temperatures hovering between 5 and 25 degrees and up a 700-foot incline to Essex Catholic coach Fred Dwyer’s home. Once there, he showered, and Dwyer’s wife, Jane, served him breakfast. Dwyer then drove him to school. In the afternoon, Keogh participated in an interval workout of eight half miles at 2-minute, 20-second pace or 15 quarter miles at 66-68 second pace.

“Fred was a workout king,” Keogh says. "The workouts were everything to him."

After the 11-mile runs in bone-chilling weather for six weeks, Keogh was “fit” enough to win the New Jersey indoor Catholic two-mile championship in 9 minutes, 39 seconds.

Keogh was a precursor to Kenyan runners, known for running to and from school.

Dwyer, a former tenacious miler at Villanova under “Jumbo” Elliott, had guided Marty Liquori to become the third high school athlete in the country to break four minutes in 1967 and then was hired as the head track and cross country coach at Manhattan College in the Bronx in 1969.

College offers arrive by the truckload

Training between 75 and 90 miles a week in high school eventually paid dividends for Keogh, catapulting him among the nation’s best. In his senior year under first-year coach Jack O’Leary, another former Villanova runner, he clocked 9:09 for two miles in the indoor college division race of the Philadelphia Classic, beating some strong collegiate runners, including Villanova’s Donal Walsh. The time was the fastest indoors in the nation for high schoolers. Within a few months, Keogh had received 273 college offers. His mother saved every letter. He remembers her crying when he received a letter with a full-scholarship offer from Notre Dame.

"... We were poor Irish kids."

-- Keogh on receiving 273 offers from colleges

“It was a very big deal for her to read that,” Keogh says. “We were poor Irish kids.”

The only major university not to make Keogh an offer was Oregon. Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman did not recruit runners from the East Coast.

Keogh excelled under the “temperate” guidance of O’Leary, himself a state high school champion in the mile at Essex Catholic under Dwyer.

“The races were the most important thing,” Keogh says about O’Leary’s running strategy.

O’Leary understood that he had a prodigy in Keogh.

“Mike was always ready to run,” he says. “He always asked, ‘What are we doing today, coach?’ Workouts were an indication of what I could expect from my athletes in a race, and Mike’s workouts were exemplary.”

Keogh wasn’t a self-focused runner, according to O’Leary, a high school coach for 32 years.

“He was a team leader, a pacesetter, encouraging his teammates,” he says.

Keogh wins two mile at prestigious Golden West, displays 'heart of a champion'

One memory for O’Leary is more prominent than the others: Keogh’s performance in the two-mile run at the prestigious Golden West Invitational, the year-end meet in June featuring the nation’s best high school track athletes traveling to Sacramento, Calif.

“Not many know this story,” says O’Leary, who was in attendance. “Mike was behind (future Tennessee great and Olympian) Doug Brown. As they approached the final turn, it appeared that Brown was going to win. I turned away and stopped my watch because I couldn’t bear to watch Mike lose. Then spectators yelled. Brown faltered, and Mike got by him and won in 8:54. He had the heart of a champion.”

Keogh's time at the Golden West was the fastest in the nation that year.

At a party, as Keogh sat between Dwyer and Elliott, the latter asked him about his decision where he planned to attend college.

“I’m going with Fred,” Keogh said.

Until 1971, college freshmen, including Keogh, were ineligible to compete on the varsity level.

Keogh’s most competitive years at Manhattan College were 1972 and ’73 when he set his personal record in the mile, won the IC4A cross country title, captured the NCAA indoor two-mile title, and competed in the 5,000 meters for Ireland in the Summer Olympics.

Keogh’s breakthrough collegiate race came at the 1972 IC4A outdoor championships in May. After having missed five months of workouts because of foot issues, Keogh won the mile on only six weeks of training in a personal record of 4:01.7 and a last quarter of 56.4 seconds.

“Dwyer threw me into the mile,” Keogh says. “He didn’t believe I could win, maybe place to get some points. Surprise. Surprise.”

Keogh pleads to run 1,500 at 1972 NCAA outdoor meet

Based on that time, Keogh pleaded with Dwyer in his office to allow him to run the 1,500 (the mile wasn’t run in Olympic years) at the NCAAs. Dwyer refused, Keogh remembers, telling him he wasn’t “fast enough” to run the mile. A heated argument ensued.

"He gave me two options, run the 5,000 or stay home."

-- Keogh on Dwyer's belief that his athlete wasn't a miler

“He gave me two options,” Keogh remembers, “run the 5,000 or stay home.”

Although not in top condition for a distance event, Keogh chose the “option” to run the 5,000 against Oregon’s Steve Prefontaine at the NCAAs and finished fifth in 13:48.3.

“Regrettably, I never broke four minutes,” he says about the mile.

Keogh ran 13:46.8, in the 5,000 -- dipping below the 1972 Olympic qualifying time of 13:48 -- at Portland, Ore., the last meet before Munich.

"All I knew was I qualified, and that's all I wanted."

-- Keogh on gaining the qualifying time for the 1972 Olympics

“All I knew was I qualified, and that’s all I wanted,” he says.

Keogh (right) warming up with Irish teammate Neil Cusack at Munich's Olympic Stadium in 1972

A novice at the Munich Olympics

Keogh recalls Munich’s 80,000-capacity Olympic Stadium about half full in the first heat of the 5,000 meters in the early evening on Sept. 7. On the starting line, Keogh, then 22, scanned the other competitors in the heat: Tunisia’s Mohamed Gammoudi, the gold medalist in the 5,000 at the 1968 Olympics; Kenya’s Ben Jipcho, the silver medalist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase earlier at the Munich Olympics; Britain’s Dave Bedford, future world-record holder in the 10,000; and Sweden’s Anders Gärderud, who would break the world record in the steeplechase en route to the gold medal at 1976 Olympics in Montreal.

"We're screwed."

-- Keogh speaking to Japanese runner at the line of 5,000 meters at Munich Olympics

After scanning the competition, Keogh turned to Japan’s Takahura Koyama next to him and said bluntly, “We’re screwed.”

Bedford and Gammoudi “threw in a 59 (second) sixth lap, and that just killed everybody,” Keogh remembers. “I was third coming down the straightaway. (But) I got beat by a lean (by Jipcho and Gärderud and finished fifth in 13:57.8.”

Gammoudi and Bedford were the only runners to advance to the 5,000 final with the former taking the silver medal. Keogh had received a shocking introduction to international racing.

“I was new,” Keogh says of the Olympic experience. “I said to myself, ‘I’m gonna come back. I know how to do it now.’ A year later would have been different. I had more knowledge of how to run a 5K.”

Returning to Manhattan after the Olympics, Keogh had developed more confidence and logged a prodigious 110-120 miles weekly in preparation for cross country. That fall, he had no problems with 30 repeat quarter miles in 68 seconds on the cinder track at Van Cortlandt Park.

“I put all my energy into it,” he says. “I was in tremendous shape.”

At the IC4A cross country meet at Van Cortlandt, Keogh entered the flats alone in first at the end of the five-mile race. He set a course record of 24:03.

“I came out of those hills, and I was ecstatic,” he says. “I finally did this. All that work.”

Keogh (174) and Villanova's John Hartnett (435) and Donal Walsh (447), both natives of Ireland and future Olympians, share the lead in the hills at the 1971 IC4A cross country meet in the mud and rain at Van Cortlandt Park. Keogh took seventh

Disastrous start at 1972 NCAA meet

After the ecstasy of the IC4As, Keogh believed that he had an opportunity to win the NCAA meet at Glenbrook Golf Course in Houston because three-time winner Steve Prefontaine of Oregon had redshirted and wasn’t competing. But he committed a “calculated error,” starting too slowly and finding himself about 125th at the mile mark.

“I didn’t expect them to go out like mad dogs,” he says. “The course narrowed, and I got stuck.”

“What are you doing back there?” Keogh remembers Dwyer asking him on the course.

Keogh weaved through traffic but ran “out of gas” at the end of six miles. He finished what was for him a disappointing seventh in 28:56; East Tennessee’s Neil Cusack, also from Ireland, won the race in 28:23.

“We all get beat,” Keogh says. “You have to learn how to lose and how to win.”

Keogh didn’t linger long on the NCAA cross country experience. At the IC4A indoor meet in March in Jadwin Gymnasium at Princeton, N.J., he pulverized the two-mile field in 8:39 and, 30 minutes later, displayed his stamina with a 4:05 mile split on the winning distance medley relay. Manhattan easily won the meet.

Individual champion in the two mile at the 1973 NCAA indoor meet

A week later in the two mile at the NCAA indoor championships at Detroit's Cobo Hall before 10,000 spectators, Keogh ran away in the final 300 yards in 8:38.7 from a field that included Olympic 800-meter champion Dave Wottle of Bowling Green, Tennessee’s Brown, Wisconsin’s Glenn Herold, and Western Kentucky’s Nick Rose, a native of Great Britain. Now, he could attach NCAA champion to his name.

“I went into the NCAAs pretty high,” Keogh says. “You have to have a certain amount of moxie to win races like that.”

To add to the elation, tiny Manhattan — with only 2,800 undergraduates — captured the 1973 NCAA Division I title with 18 points, six ahead of Kansas, Kansas State, and UTEP. It remains the college’s only NCAA title.

Keogh’s assault at the big events continued at the 1973 NCAA outdoor meet in Baton Rouge, La. where he has resided for more than 40 years. In 85-degree heat, he was fifth in the three miles in a PR of 13:14.7, almost 10 seconds behind front runner Prefontaine.

“Even in good shape, the heat affected me,” he says. “I wasn’t pleased with my time.”

Keogh anchoring the mile in 4:05 on the distance medley relay at the IC4A indoors in 1973 at Princeton

The next year Keogh struggled with hamstring injuries and a stress fracture in addition to his constant feet problems. He says Dwyer dismissed him from the team in May of 1974 when he couldn’t finish an interval workout at Columbia University due to a stress fracture.

Lost in the wilderness

Keogh graduated from Manhattan that month with a Bachelors of Arts degree in History and found himself at a crossroad. He was offered the track position at Essex Catholic but turned it down. No longer able to identify as an elite athlete, he stumbled through a wilderness experience. He reunited with friends from grammar and high school and spent the summer weekends, by his own admission, “drunk.”

In October, he accepted a position coaching distance runners at Adelphi University on Long Island. After becoming a U.S. citizen in February 1975, he competed in the mile for the U.S. team at a meet in Israel, a decision he would later regret.

In August, he walked out of the wilderness with a new impetus, pursuing a spot on the 1976 U.S. Olympic team.

"Running gave me something I never had: an identity. It was my sanctuary... It was as if God gave me a gift, and all I had to do was run. Now, that's freedom."

-- Keogh on pursuing a new dream

“Running gave me something I never had: an identity,” Keogh says. “It was my sanctuary… It was as if God gave me a gift, and all I had to do was a run. Now, that’s freedom.”

He moved to Gainesville, Fla. and trained with 1972 Olympic marathon champion Frank Shorter, Olympian Jack Bacheler, Olympian Liquori, and future 1974 Boston marathon champion Cusack. But he returned to New Jersey after only three months because he was “financially broke.”

Loneliness of a long-distance runner

Living with his parents, he landed a job with his father’s company, Prudential, delivering mail in New Haven, Conn. He established an arduous routine: drive from New Jersey to New Haven, deliver the mail, run 9 or 10 miles in an hour around Yale University at night, and then return to New Jersey around 1 a.m. He maintained that schedule five days a week and ran interval workouts in a park near his parents’ home on the weekends for six months. In March, he quit the job to train full time. In May, he clocked 13:39 in the 5,000 at the Tom Black meet in Knoxville, Tenn. to qualify for the Olympic trials.

This is no way to earn a living

“It was a difficult time,” Keogh says. “There was no money and no shoe sponsorships.”

His parents and friends raised the funds to send him to the Olympic trials in Eugene, Ore. Once there, he trained under Oregon coach Bill Dellinger for several weeks and lived in former Manhattan College runner Matt Centrowitz’s one-bedroom apartment with four other runners.

These were Olympic trials qualifiers living a hardscrabble existence. They received no per diem.

"We slept on the floor. We'd draw straws to see who got the bedroom."

-- Keogh on the struggles of an amateur track athlete

“We slept on the floor,” Keogh recalls. “We’d draw straws to see who got the bedroom.”

Professional athletes were ultimately allowed to compete in each sport of the 1986 Olympics. In 1997, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships became a fully professional competition.

Cracked tooth ends the dream for second Olympics

Like his successful 1973 campaign, Keogh, 5-foot-8 and a lithe 115 pounds, was in peak physical condition at the trials. He finished first in his 5,000 heat in 13:50. That night, however, he cracked a molar eating a steak dinner. The night before the 5,000 final, he had the tooth extracted. In pain and without much sleep, he took sixth in 14:01.5. Only the top three advanced to the Olympics.

After the trials, Keogh received a telephone call from an official with the Irish Olympic Committee asking if he would consider competing for Ireland since he was the only Irish qualifier in the 5,000. He mulled it over until receiving a call from a U.S. track official who “threatened” to expose him for competing for the U.S. team at the meet in Israel in 1975.

With that, he retired and didn’t run for six years. From 1981-‘83, he coached middle distance runners at LSU. Then in 1983 at age 33, he felt an itch to run again and scratched it. He chose to focus on the 10,000 because he calculated that he didn’t have the speed anymore for the 5,000. He concentrated on road races, beating two-time Olympian Craig Virgin and taking seventh in the 15K at the Gasparilla Distance Classic in Tampa, Fla, in 43:45 in February of 1983.

"I just came out of nowhere."

--Keough about a return to racing in 1983

“I just came out of nowhere,” Keogh says.

But it all ended with a thud following a hamstring strain in March of 1984 and not enough time to recover for the Olympic trials.

Keogh’s track career spanning two decades was officially over. He graduated from chiropractic school in Texas and has had a career in the profession since 1990.

Tragedy strikes the Keogh family

The Keogh family received a cruel blow five years ago when their 20-year-old daughter, Katie, a student at LSU, died instantly from a broken neck after being struck by an object protruding from a train as she crossed railroad tracks with friends near the University of Alabama campus in Tuscaloosa.

"I still think about my daughter. She would have been someone who could've added to mankind. (God) just wanted her back. ..."

-- Keogh on the death of his daughter, Katie

“I still think about my daughter,” Keogh says. “She would have been someone who could’ve added to mankind. (God) just wanted her back. Is there a reason? We can all search for that. I tell people, ‘Hug on them. You can lose them at any moment.’ ”

Despite three surgeries on his feet after his retirement from competition, Keogh, 72, recently rose at 5 a.m. each day for a week to run a few miles with his 23-year-old son, Lucas, a recent LSU graduate planning to enter the Air Force as a second lieutenant.

His spirit soared.

Jim Irish, Manhattan College ’74, is a freelance writer near Austin, Texas

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