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Track & field: UNM’s Kelati used determination, kick to win first national title

Upon winning the NCAA outdoor national championship in the 10,000 meters, University of New Mexico sophomore Weini Kelati had little time to celebrate, much less reflect on a spectacular performance.

From the track, she was whisked away for a drug test that took over an hour, she shared with the media in the Letterman’s Lounge at Dreamstyle Arena on Thursday afternoon.

“It was awful, waiting,” said Kelati, who outkicked Oregon’s Carmela Cardama Baez to win her first national title in 33 minutes, 10.84 seconds on June 6 in Austin, Texas.

“It was hard. You’re tired. It’s already midnight. I was just looking to sleep. It didn’t happen. I was tired. I was hungry. But I tried to do as well as I can to recover for the next race. But I think it was a little hard to fall asleep after midnight.”

During a 15-minute press conference, Kelati, sitting with UNM coach Joe Franklin, talked about her national championship performance and provided glimpses of her determination.

The motivation to come out on top in a grueling 10,000-meter race amid high temperatures stemmed from her runner-up finish at the NCAA cross country national championships in November.

“It was something that made me strong, to work for it and look for it in another race,” Kelati said in a soft-spoken voice. “When I got into the (10,000 meters) I did not ask myself to get second or third. All I was thinking is to get first.”

Kelati, again showing her fire, gave a poignant answer when asked what it took to become a national champion.

She said she never really thought about how she arrived to the point of being a national champion.

“Until you finish, you think about the next race and how you can get better on the next one,” she said.

Kelati was grateful that she won in front of so many supporters, including some of her cousins she said. She is a native of Eritrea, a country in Africa. She chose UNM after a remarkable prep career at Heritage High School in Leesburg, Va. She said it was the right fit.

A UNM athletic spokesperson attempted to cut off further inquiries about Kelati’s background, at least for the time being.

Kelati expressed relief and excitement for winning the national title.

“This is something I have been waiting (for),” Kelati said. “I have been close so many times and I’m glad I’ve been able to do it.”

Franklin said he was thrilled to see Kelati win the 10,000-meter race.

“To be able to have another gear when somebody comes up on the side of you with 50 meters left is so rare,” Franklin said. “Nine times out of 10 that person passes you. But Weini, I assume, felt her on (her) shoulder and then put the hammer down.”

Kelati’s performance helped the UNM women’s track and field team make history with a program-record 27 team points and an eighth-place finish.

She was one of three top-10 finishes for the Lobos that led UNM to place second in the Terry Crawford Program of the Year standings for the 2018-19 year.

The Lobos finished four points behind Oregon and one ahead of Arkansas.

The standings are based on finishes in cross country, indoor track and field and outdoor track and field.

“For our women to have that accolade is nothing short of remarkable,” said Franklin, who was awarded a $10,000 bonus for the Lobos’ eighth-place finish, per his contract.

“These women put everything into it, their heart and their soul. And, to do it the way they do it is just amazing. It’s just a testament to what our women are doing on our team. They just keep getting a little bit better and a little bit better each year.”

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