Weini Kelati, regarded as University of New Mexico’s most decorated distance runner with two NCAA individual titles and 13 All-America honors, found a way to achieve yet another great feat.
She landed a pro contract during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kelati, who was in her senior year of eligibility, has signed with Under Armour, the sports shoe and apparel company announced in a press release Tuesday morning. She will join Under Armour’s Dark Sky Distance team based in Flagstaff, Arizona.
“I know it’s been a crazy year, but it never stopped me from working hard,” Kelati said during a virtual press conference. “I’ve been training, even harder. (The pandemic) gives me more opportunities to work on the stuff that I never have had time for (because classes are now online). … Mentally, I know it can be hard at times because there is nothing going your way, but at the same time it gives us opportunities to train to work harder, and to make sure that I am ready when the time comes.”
Kelati, 24, signed a multi-year deal with Under Armour last week, she said, yet she and the company representatives would not provide dollar amount or specifics of the contract.
She will make her pro debut with Under Armour on Saturday competing in the women’s 10,000-meter race at the Sound Running Track Meet in Southern California. The race is scheduled to start at 9:55 p.m. Mountain Time and will be streamed online at USATF.TV.
“We’re super-excited for her,” UNM track and field and cross country coach Joe Franklin said. “Our goals as coaches and educators is to help students get opportunities. Whether it’s going to grad school, medical school or in the professional world, or turning professional in the sport of running, that’s our goal. We’ve been able to give Weini those opportunities. We can’t be any more happy for her. She is the salt of the earth. She is a great young woman that brings a lot not only to the sport but also to the world. She’s just a great soul. For her to have these opportunities is remarkable.”
With last fall’s NCAA cross country season canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Kelati began gaining more interest for pro opportunities last month, Franklin said. Kelati said she had no reason to wait until the end of spring to turn pro, so she did so now. She also wanted to maintain her training with the goal of reaching the Olympics, and representing the U.S., either in 2021 or the 2024 Paris Games.
Kelati will remain a student at UNM to finish her undergraduate degree work, while assisting with the track and field program in a coaching capacity.
She said she will train some in Flagstaff and some in Albuquerque.
Kelati won the NCAA cross country individual title in 2019 and with the Lobos for their team national championship in 2017. She also won the 2019 NCAA individual title in the 10,000 meters in indoor track and field.
Kelati was contending to win another national title at the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships in Albuquerque, before the events were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 12, one of the first sporting events wiped out by COVID-19.
She had qualified for the NCAA Championships in four events and was set to compete in the 3,000- and 5,000-meter races. She earned All-America honors in the 3,000, 5,000 and distance medley relay.
She described the meet’s cancellation as “heartbreaking.”
She was named Mountain West Conference Female Athlete of the Year (2019-20) in August and the MWC Indoor Track & Field Female Athlete of the Year in March.
Kelati, originally from Eritrea (a country in East Africa), moved to the United States in 2014 when she traveled to Eugene, Oregon to compete in the Junior World Championships, and stayed in the U.S. She intentionally missed her flight back to Eritrea without telling friends and family, according to the Under Armour website.
“I was just a little girl who had big dreams,” Kelati says on Under Armour’s website, referring to her rise from Eritrea. “I’ve always been independent and wanted to accomplish something.”