Westly Keating wasn't good at soccer or baseball like his trophy-winning friends but when he ran a mile in 5 minutes, 12 seconds as a sixth-grader in a junior high physical fitness test, the course of his life changed.
The University of Texas-Pan American sophomore is now an All-American in two sports at the University - track and cross country - and has qualified for the 2004 Olympic Trials in track and field.
"At first, I did the running for the medals and trophies. As you get older, you get out of that stage and do it for yourself. Now, I do it for others - I got three of my friends into running and they've gone on to college," Keating said.
Keating's road to becoming an All-American athlete was not easy. Tragically losing both his parents at age five while living in Alaska, Keating and his two siblings were sent to live with his grandfather in Brownsville. With his grandfather absent much of Keating's childhood and self-professed as a "bad kid" throughout elementary and junior high school - he was frequently misbehaving and getting into fights. However, Keating credits parents of friends, neighbors and coaches as eventual great influences in his life.
"Neighbors I call 'step parents', Gilbert De Leon and Maria Espinoza, raised me in a sense. They taught me morals, how I should be and what I should do to be successful in life," Keating said.
Also, Keating said all his coaches have played a strong role in his personal growth.
"Every coach I've ever had has been like a father figure to me and tried to raise me in little ways as they could in the short time I was with them."
A graduate of Pharr-San Juan-Alamo North High School, Keating excelled on their track and cross country teams. Attending the University of Texas at Austin on scholarship as a freshman, a break up in a relationship resulting in a deep depression caused Keating to decide to transfer closer to the support and companionship of his childhood friends.
At UTPA, Keating is the first athlete in track and field to earn All-American status twice in a season that includes cross country in the fall and track in the spring. In comparing the two venues, Keating said while cross country is more fun because of the different courses and the team sport aspect, he prefers track.
"Track is more intense and at a faster pace. Also, people can see you run," Keating said.
Like many other athletes, Keating has a few race rituals.
"I talk to myself during the race about the pace and my strategy," he said.
Keating also wears a necklace with skulls that he said represented the souls of his top race opponents he has defeated. The necklace now has 13 skulls strung across it. And, despite the urging of his coach to eat healthier, he always eats pizza the night before a race.
UTPA Assistant Track and Field Coach Douglas Molnar said that Keating has been an integral part in strengthening the team at UTPA.
"Westly demonstrates leadership for the team not only through his words motivating both male and female team members but also through his actions - he shows up every day for practice ready to run and compete and he's ready at every meet to do what's necessary," Molnar said.
Keating qualified for the Olympic Trials in the 10,000-meters next year at the "B" standard, which requires a time of 28:50 or under. An "A" standard qualification requires a time of 28:15 or under. Keating's best time is 28.41. Athletes who achieve the "A" standard are automatically included in the event, but if the field size of 24 in this event is not met by a sufficient number of "A" standard athletes, "B" standard qualifiers will be included. As of May, there were only four "A" standard qualifiers.
"I'm not thinking about the Olympics right now because a lot of things can happen in a year," Keating said.
Despite his grueling practice schedule of running 15 to 17 miles two days a week and 10 to 12 miles on the other five "easy" days, Keating hopes to find a summer job to save up money for the fall and spring. A certified pharmacy technician, Keating said the extensive travel, practice and keeping up with school work prevents him from working during the sport seasons. Majoring in chemistry, he is considering a career as a pharmacist or a physical therapist.
"I don't know who I'd really be if I didn't run - it's what kept me in school and got me into college. But as I grow it's becoming more secondary. My big thing now is to be successful in life," Keating said.
What advice does Keating have for others? "Set your dreams and your goals real high. Never give up trying for them. You can come from nothing and still do things with your life. It's hard sometimes, but I mean, just keep going. Complete it. It'll all be worth it down the road."