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After the 2021 Olympic Track & Field Trials, Weini Kelati knew she needed to take a break. In the weeks leading up to the 10,000 meters at Hayward Field, she graduated from the University of New Mexico, trained for the biggest competition of her life, and became a U.S. citizen with just about 48 hours to spare before contending for a spot at the Tokyo Games.
Trials didn’t go well. In the sweltering heat that morning in Eugene, Oregon, the 2019 NCAA champion in the event tried to race at the front, but was dropped by 6K and didn’t finish. In retrospect, Kelati, 24, calls the whole time period in her young professional life “a little crazy.”
“I was racing back-to-back and trying to make sure I graduated on time in May and I was trying to get my citizenship. It was hard to do it all at the same time,” Kelati said during a phone interview with Women’s Running on Friday. “I left [the Trials] with mixed emotions. I was disappointed that I did not run well, but at the same time I was happy to get my citizenship—this is what I wanted, I got it, and I’m going to run for the United States.”
By now, many know Kelati’s story. She came to the U.S. from Eritrea to compete at the 2014 junior world championships and never returned home. Without telling her family, Kelati intentionally missed her flight to pursue her dream of making the U.S. home and ended up moving to a relative’s care in Virginia. A year later, she won the prestigious 2015 Footlocker National Cross Country meet. At the University of New Mexico, she became the most decorated athlete in program history and earned her degree in public health.
Kelati was among the NCAA stars who gave up eligibility during the pandemic to sign a pro contract. She struck a deal with Under Armour and is coached by her agent, Stephen Haas, who leads the Dark Sky Distance training group in Flagstaff, Arizona.
After that day at the Trials, Kelati wanted to total reset. It took her a month to recover from the heat, she said, and she spent time with her family and friends—something she hadn’t been able to do in seven years.
“I was mentally and physically tired,” she said. “I was going to race a week later, but I said, ‘No. This is not the right time to do it. I’m going to take a break and come back stronger.’ It was a very long break. After that, I felt ready to run and race again. I really missed racing.”
It appears she made the right call. Kelati lined up on October 16 at the Boston 10K for Women and won in an event record of 31:18. It went exactly as she had envisioned.
“I said, ‘I’m here, I have to win the race.’ That was all in my mind,” she said. “I knew there was a lot of great women there…my training has been really, really great. I felt like I could just keep pushing until the end.”
Next, she’ll go for a U.S. road title on November 6 at the Dash to the Finish Line 5K, part of the 2021 New York City Marathon festivities (the race will be broadcast on USATF.tv). She’ll compete against Erika Kemp, who won the 20K championships a month ago and took second at the 25K in Michigan last weekend. Kelati will also find Olympians Gwen Jorgensen (2014 Dash to the Finish Line winner) and Kim Conley on the starting line.
But Kelati said she trusts in her training and her new-found professional lifestyle, enamored with the amount of time she now has, in the absence of schoolwork, for sleep, fueling and nutrition, physical therapy, and the like. She’s even started lifting weights—a part of training she’s never really tried before.
“I’m very hopeful that the 5K will go well. I’m looking to win or get top three. Everything is possible,” Kelati said.
After that? She sees a full season ahead with another road race and some cross-country competition, before turning to the indoor track season. Ultimately, making her first Team USA for the world championships is her biggest goal.
“I just work one step at a time,” Kelati said. “Even though I have a lot of races coming, I just focus on the 5K in New York first.”