Keeley O’Hagan walked into her old school, laden with boxes of brand new shoes.
“She had all these beautiful shoes and she said: ‘Can you make sure you give these to the kids who don’t have the opportunity to buy new sports shoes?’” Ōtaki College principal Andy Fraser recalls.
“Keeley has a big heart.”
O’Hagan, the three-time national high jump champion, now lives, works and trains in Christchurch, but often returns to her small hometown on the Kapiti Coast to visit her parents, two older brothers and nephews living there. Sometimes she pops into the high school.
“It’s cool when you have students who don’t forget where they’ve come from, and are still really humble,” says Fraser. “But who continue to push themselves and strive to be the best they can be.”
That’s O’Hagan to a T. Having been to world age-group championships while still at school, she’s often been asked to speak to the students at Ōtaki. But she’s always demurred, on the grounds that she was yet to make a New Zealand senior athletics team.
Now she won’t be able to turn another invitation down, as she prepares to compete for New Zealand at the Birmingham Commonwealth Games.
And the story she’ll deliver to the 500 students at Ōtaki College? It will be nothing short of inspirational.
At 28, O’Hagan has been to hell and back – but now she’s thriving. The probation officer turned nutritionist is happy in her work, and she’s never leaped so high in her athletics career.
The girl who went to her first international athletics meet in Australia at the age of 11, has been through many painful struggles with her mental and physical health. The list is distressing: an eating disorder, RED-S syndrome, endometriosis, a string of injuries, recurring illnesses and depression. She tried to take her own life at 17.
But with a lot of support from those closest to her, and an understanding of how she was under-fuelling her body, O’Hagan has come through the other side. She’s stronger, mentally and physically, and she’s performing better than ever.
Under a new coach in a new city, O’Hagan went through the last New Zealand athletics season unbeaten, and her perfect jump of 1.88m at the national championships in Hastings in March was not only a personal best – for the first time in seven years – but it also thrust her into Commonwealth Games contention.
She then had an anxious couple of months before meeting her selection conditions, by jumping 1.82m twice in Australia last month, and finally clinching her ticket to Birmingham.
“My journey to get here hasn’t been linear in the slightest,” O’Hagan says.
“But it’s just so nice to see my hard work and sacrifices have all paid off. Through all my challenges, I always held a place in my heart for athletics. And I knew when I was older, I’d regret it if I didn’t at least try.
“And when I made that commitment, I fell in love with it again, and found the joy in training especially. I love the every-day challenges as well.”
The hallway outside Andy Fraser’s office doubles as Ōtaki College’s Sports Hall of Fame.
Photo after framed photo of students who’ve represented New Zealand in their chosen codes line the walls.
There’s two-time Olympic kayaker John MacDonald, Silver Fern Katarina Cooper, and Jordan Aria Housiaux, who captained the Paddle Ferns to victory at the 2016 world canoe polo champs. New Zealand white-water canoe slalom sisters Louise, Isobelle and Heather Jull are amongst a stream of national waka ama representatives and Touch Blacks.
Fraser’s daughter, Alana, is among them, having played touch for New Zealand age-group teams. And of course, there’s a photo of O’Hagan from the 2008 Pacific School Games.
It’s a school proud of its sporting pedigree, where most kids are involved in at least one code. And Ōtaki doesn’t have the struggle to keep girls in physical activity that many other schools do, Fraser says.
“We don’t seem to have the same drop out figures for girls. We’re a small town between Paraparaumu and Levin, and there’s no public transport to Levin, and connectivity to Paraparaumu is limited unless you have a car. Our kids don’t have the draw to get to cities or other places to do things,” he says.
“The way they meet and enjoy life together is through sport. A lot have very active whānau engaged in sport; there are massive connections to waka ama.
“Basketball has recently become the key sport in our college; our football team have taken out championships. Girls volleyball is growing and netball remains a strong option.”
O’Hagan was one of those kids who wanted to play everything.
“From primary school I did everything. I used to play cricket – although I don’t know any of the rules now – touch, netball, badminton, tennis, athletics. And I did dance till I was 15. There were more sports I wanted to play, like hockey, but I couldn’t fit them in,” she says.
“Poor Mum, she drove us all over the country, every day. When athletics became my dominant sport, she would do athletics training with me.
“That’s one disadvantage in a small town – things are a lot further away. I was training in Paraparaumu, which back then was a 30-minute drive each way. We’d go there before school for my morning training session, and do the same after school.”
A speedy goal attack, O’Hagan made Manawatu rep teams in netball, but she gave the game away at 15 to focus solely on athletics – particularly high jump.
It was an event she got the hang of quickly after starting athletics at 10. By 11, she was on her way to the Pacific School Games in Melbourne, where she won silver.
“In a small community, everyone rallies around you and helps you get there,” O’Hagan says.
At 15, she jumped 1.82m – a national junior record – and was just 16 when she went to the world U20 championships in Canada in 2010 (with Jacko Gill, Tom Walsh and Angie Petty). She followed that up with the World Youth Games in France the next year.
“In hindsight I probably shouldn’t have gone,” she says now. “It was too much for a young person to deal with at 16 and 17.”
O’Hagan loved growing up in the close-knit Ōtaki community, which today is just shy of 4000 locals.
“After school, you’d go motorbiking with your friends down to the river to swim,” she says. “That’s if we weren’t doing sport. And pretty much everyone was doing sport.”
Despite the idyllic lifestyle, O’Hagan made a “leap of faith” and midway through Year 12, moved to Auckland, transferring to Western Springs College for her final school years.
“I moved for my mental health,” she says. “I had quite a few things going on at the time and I needed to get out of the small-town environment. There were heaps of positives growing up but when I got to a certain age, I needed to branch out and figure things out for myself.”
O’Hagan continued to struggle with her physical and mental health, though.
“Around 15, I became more aware of my body image,” she says. “I’d never been a big person, but competing overseas and seeing all these athletes in their rundies [running briefs] and crop tops, I was thinking ‘Wow I don’t look like that’. But these people were years older than me.”
Although at times she ate a lot – “My nickname was Noo-noo, after the vacuum cleaner on Teletubbies” – she developed an eating disorder at 17. She realises now she also had RED-S – which affects athlete who don’t refuel their body to meet the energy they burn, and leads to injuries, illnesses and menstrual issues.
“I was unintentionally in that RED-S state because I did so much sport and dance,” O’Hagan says. “I didn’t have nutrition support to help to make appropriate choices around what I should be eating. On the days I’d do morning sessions, I don’t think I had a full breakfast before going to school.
“I had really poor mental health and a variety of factors that played into that. But I know now under-fuelling myself would not have helped me at all. You can’t really function super well without the right nutrients.” She hopes schools and athletics clubs today are able to help their young athletes get on the right track.
Plagued by injuries from the age of 15, she was also dealing with endometriosis, chronic fatigue syndrome and glandular fever. They all made training and competing so much harder.
Determined to continue, she managed to jump another personal best of 1.85m in 2015, and was eighth at the World University Games in South Korea.
The next few years were just as challenging for O’Hagan, but with the support of family, friends and her coach/confidante in Wellington, Mike Ritchie, she overcame her eating disorder, and learned to love herself and the way she looked.
Always interested in crime, O’Hagan finished her studies in criminology and anthropology at the University of Victoria and worked as a probation officer. “Then I took a step back and realised I wanted to continue doing athletics,” she says.
O’Hagan stopped working, and while on a backpacking holiday in South East Asia, decided to move to Christchurch in 2019, to train with Olympic high jumper Hamish Kerr and his coach, Terry Lomax. She’s flourished there.
She’s completed another degree, in human nutrition, and is now working with another nutritionist, and fellow Commonwealth Games team-mate, sprint star Zoe Hobbs. She hopes she can help more young athletes to refuel right.
She’s also fitter and healthier: “I haven’t had overuse injuries in the three years since I moved to Christchurch.”
And she’s clearing the bar at new heights. After her 1.88m at nationals this year – her best jump in seven years – she looks to be in strong form for Birmingham, having cleared 1.86m in Ireland last weekend.
O’Hagan can’t wait to finally compete at her first pinnacle senior athletics event on Thursday, August 4, in Alexander Stadium, in front of her parents, Brent and Sue. She’s aiming for a personal best, and a place in the top six.
Although it will be 10pm back in New Zealand, Andy Fraser will record O’Hagan’s event and broadcast it over the school’s TV channel the next morning.
“You never let a chance go by to see our young people from Ōtaki excel,” he says.
“It’s important for our students to understand that where you come from and who you are doesn’t dictate what you can achieve. They need to see people like Keeley on the international stage.
“Especially how she’s learned how to overcome her challenges, look after herself and push through. You couldn’t get a better role model for the kids to look up to.”
* Competition in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games starts tonight from 7.30pm, with coverage on six Sky Sport channels, and the main events free-to-air on Prime. LockerRoom will keep you up-to-date with the performances of our wāhine toa in our daily ‘Lunch Wrap’ from Saturday.