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20 Question Tuesday: Jen Keith

A different person from Charlotte Latin Athletics is featured on the first Tuesday of each month with twenty questions to help the CLS community get to know some of our athletes, coaches, and supporters a bit better.

For November, meet Jen Keith! She teaches fifth grade in the Lower School and is an assistant coach for the Middle School swimming team. You may have seen a post about her on the CLS Athletics social media sites last month when she competed in the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Just qualifying for that event is daunting, and it wasn’t her first time. This was her second trip to Kona, and her sixth full Ironman competition. Read on to learn about Jen Keith’s journey and discover whether she’s ready to retire from racing.

1. You were born and raised in Charlotte, so where did you go to school?

I went to Rama Rd Elementary for kindergarten and first grade, then McKee Rd Elementary for 2nd and 3rd grades, and then Billingsville Elementary for fourth and fifth because CMS was busing kids to schools then. In sixth grade, I went to South Charlotte, but then Crestdale opened so I was there for seventh and eighth grades. Finally, in high school, I got to stay in one place. I went to Providence High School all four years.

2. Who did you live with growing up?

My mom, who was a teacher and primarily worked in elementary school. My dad, who worked in sales. And my brother, William, who is three years older than me. He’s actually the reason I started swimming.

3. So when was that? And did you do other sports?

I’ve been a swimmer my whole life. William was doing summer league (swimming), so I wanted to do what he did. I dabbled in gymnastics and ballet for a hot minute. I ruined a ballet performance by running out on stage before I was supposed to when I was little. Really, all I did was swim. I ran track in middle school, and I had the mile record at Crestdale for a while. In high school, I ran cross country initially but that was discouraged by my club coaches so I quit.

4. Who did you swim for?

I tried out for SwimMAC when I was about six, I guess. Patty Waldron did my tryout. (Editor’s note: Patty Waldron was the head of the Latin swimming program from 2008-2022.) I was certain I was going to be in Patty’s group and she would be my coach. I was certain. But Patty coached the 13-14 year old group at the time, so I had to wait a while for Patty to be my coach. I always swam for MAC, and I swam for Providence all four years there.

5. Did you enjoy your high school swimming experience?

Oh yeah. We were state champs my freshman, sophomore, and senior years. We lost my junior year to South Meck and that was one of the greatest learning lessons of my life. Everyone on our team was deathly sick, but we fought our hearts out to swim the best that we could and still lost. South was our biggest rival, but their team was made up of all the people I swam with every day at MAC. When we lost, my mother told me to go over there and shake everyone’s hand. I didn’t want to, but I did, and it taught me a lot about being a gracious loser.

6. Then you went on to swim at UNC. What do you remember about your recruitment?  

It was overwhelming. They sent letters in the mail back in those days and then the coaches could start calling you on a specific date. July 1st, I think it was, and we were shocked when people started calling. I went on recruiting trips to Virginia Tech, Florida State, UNC, and UNCW. I had a really good time at Tech, and at Florida State, but I grew up a Tar Heel fan and I wanted to be a Tar Heel.

7. Did you have success as a swimmer at Carolina?

I actually cried a lot the whole summer before college. I did not want to keep swimming. I was feeling burned out, but my parents encouraged me to just give it a try. Freshman year was pretty good. I was starting to see success and I did pretty well at ACCs. Then I had to have surgery on my knee. The doctor said I was genetically predisposed to it and that combined with years and years of training breaststroke caused the issue. The first surgery was arthroscopic and it didn’t really work. I had a second surgery that moved my kneecap and screwed it back into place. I spent most of my sophomore and junior years in the training room and didn’t swim my senior year.

8. Academically, you majored in elementary education. Did you always know you wanted to be a teacher?

Growing up, I was certain I was never going to be a teacher. But junior or senior year of high school, I changed my mind. My mom and grandmother were both teachers, so that definitely impacted me and I knew what I wanted to do when I got to Carolina. After graduating, I got a job at Providence Spring Elementary, where my mom worked and where I was on the fifth grade team with one of my former elementary school teachers. I worked there for two years and then made the change to Latin in 2011 and have been here ever since.

9. What do you enjoy most about teaching?

I like the connection I make with my kids. I love seeing them grow up at Latin. Every year, I have my kids write a letter to themselves and I mail it to them when they graduate. It’s fun to hear back what they’re doing and it’s often incredible how much they grow and change.

10. What do you enjoy most about coaching?   

I really enjoy getting to continue a relationship with the kids I taught. Seeing the accomplishments of the kids that come to practice every day is pretty great. Watching Maxwell complete his first 50 free ever in a race. Watching Ansley break 40. And I love that the Middle School kids stand on the side of the pool and cheer for every person, for every race. That’s special.

11. After college, you’d already sort of retired from swimming and went straight into teaching, so how did you get involved in triathlons?   

During summer break in college, I went to group exercise classes at the Y with my mom and then kept doing them back in Chapel Hill. Eventually, I got certified to be a group exercise instructor, so while I was teaching 5th grade, I was also teaching classes at the Siskey Y (which is now the Brace Y). My group exercise boss there talked me into joining the triathlon training group, and I signed up for a half Ironman before I even started training. At the time, I didn’t own a bike. I did get one before the race, but it was a road bike, not a triathlon bike. I think I ate two mini peanut butter pretzel crackers for the whole race. I wasn’t really prepared, but I loved it. I’m not sure if I loved the race itself when I think about it, but it’s the community that makes the sport.

12. it sounds like you had a long way to go from that first race to where you are now. How did your preparation evolve?

I decided I wanted to hire a coach and be more serious about it. I first worked with Kelly Fillnow, who put together a training plan for me and coached me to my first Half Ironman World Championships in 2013, which was in Vegas. After competing there, I decided I wanted to do a full (Ironman), so I signed up for Chattanooga in 2014. My mindset going in was just to finish and try to enjoy the day, which I did, but I felt like I could be more serious about racing competitively. I started working with Steve Hall, who helped me get to the point where I believed in myself enough to compete for a qualifying spot at Kona.* I first qualified in 2017 and went with my coach and one of my training partners, and my mom who came out to support me. I had no expectation except to finish, soak it all in, and not need the medical tent after the race. It was awesome and miserable and wonderful and terrible, and I knew right away I wanted to do it again. I did my next full in 2019 and somehow managed to qualify for Kona even though the swim, my strength, was canceled because the water was green with toxic algae. After that, Covid hit, and since then it's been this cycle of training, the race getting canceled, hopes being raised and training more, then race getting canceled. It was a relief to get there because there had been years of uncertainty and it was finally happening.
(Editor’s note: Qualifying spots are earned various ways, but most commonly by winning your age group at full Ironman competitions. Read more about qualification here.)

13. What do your training schedule and race day prep look lik?

I get up between 3:45 and 4:15 every morning to train, with swim workouts Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and bike or a run on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Saturday is a long run and Sunday is a long bike followed by a run. It’s roughly 12-15 hours of training a week, with just as much time prioritizing my sleep, recovery, and mobility. I’m super diligent. I’m never gonna be the fastest. I’m never gonna be the best. But no one is going to out-work me. The day of the race, I was up at 3 am to eat. That’s just white food like rice, pasta, plain carbs, easily digestible things. You report to the start and they tattoo your arms, then it’s a hurry up and wait kind of thing for the start.

14. Didn’t you have some fans cheering you on for this race?

I actually did a FaceTime with my class before the start. The kids were screaming and yelling at the phone, so I couldn’t understand anything they were saying, but it was great. They ordered Team Keith t-shirts and ordered leis and the class gave me a little send-off beforehand, which was awesome. My mom and some other supporters were in Kona with me, including Patty! She somehow wedged herself through all these volunteers and other people cheering to get to see me before the start.

Ms. Keith and her 5th grade class, "Team Keith," at her Ironman send-off in October, 2022

15. When you race, what is going through your mind?

I think about fuel, drink, fuel. Trying to hold my power (I didn’t). In a normal Ironman, I’m racing during the bike, because the swim and the bike are my strengths. But in Kona, I’m just trying not to do anything stupid. Just stay balanced in the wind because it’s brutal. There are head winds, tail winds, cross winds. There’s a relief in getting off the bike, even though starting the marathon is definitely daunting. The first stretch of the run is lined with people and it’s super fun, but then you turn and go out into the desolate, hot lava fields and it’s miserable. You see people walking. You really question your life decisions during the marathon. You spend a lot of time in your own head, thinking about how you’ll never do it again.

16. And when you finished, were you like, “Never again?!”

When I crossed the finish line this time, I was thinking, “Ironman is dumb. I’m gonna do another one.” That race is so iconic and it’s so hard and so brutal, but you can’t beat that feeling of crossing the finish line.  

17. Let’s finish up with some fun questions. What are your favorite sports to watch on TV?

The Carolina Panthers, if they’re winning. Carolina basketball, when they’re winning. I’m a diehard Panthers and Tar Heel fan, but it’s a lot more fun when they’re winning.

18. What’s the best vacation you’ve ever been on?
Kona, Hawaii
18b. That doesn’t count! That was a competition, not a vacation!
If you send me on a vacation, I don’t want to sit still. I can’t sit on a beach all day. I prefer to be doing something. The day after the Ironman, we were out of the house by 7 a.m. We toured half the island, just walking around seeing the sights.

19. What is your favorite holiday and why?

Thanksgiving. There’s the Turkey Trot, family, football, and food.  

20. What has been your favorite Latin sports memory so far? 

When we won the boys’ and girls’ (GCMSAA) championships in 2020 and Laura (Thomsen) and I jumped in the pool. Also, getting to coach with Patty.


Want to see photos of Jen Keith in action in Hawai’i? Click here and enter bib number 1060 under “Find Yor Photos,” then scroll down to see the images.  

Middle School swimming coaches Laura Thomsen (left) and Jen Keith celebrate winning both the boys' and girls' GCMSAA Championship in 2020

Jen Keith and Patty Waldron cheer on Latin swimmers at the conference championship