For eight years, his father piloted helicopters for the U.S. Navy — sometimes in drug-infested Central America, other times in war-torn Iraq, and copious times in the pitch-perfect climate of San Diego, California.
He got to choose his location, of course. When you can command a chopper like Mike Keller, you best believe you can pick any destination you dang please. Keller, you see, smashed all the student records at Navy flight school in Pensacola, Fla., and after forging a distinguished military career, became everything his son, Sean, aspired to be.
Well, now a senior at Heritage High School, Sean Keller has turned out more like his old man than he ever thought possible. Not because he plans on enlisting in the service, but because — like no else around him — the kid can make … things … fly.
“There is nothing more beautiful than watching the javelin release from his hand,” Heritage track and field coach Russ Weaver said. “It’s an exhilarating feeling. I can’t describe it. It’s just a very, very unusual experience.”
Last month in Gresham Ore., Keller launched a javelin 244 feet and 1 inch. The throw, which was approximately a Fred Meyer farther than anyone else in the field, broke his own Washington state record by 12 feet and fell one inch short of Sam Crouser’s in-season national record. It also qualified Keller for this summer’s U.S. Olympic trials in Eugene, where he will likely be the youngest participant in the field.
But four years ago, Keller never imagined that an 800-gram stick would carry so much weight in his life. Back then, appropriately enough, his future was very much up in the air.
“Javelin has changed my life,” Keller said. “Track has changed everything.”
Let’s travel back a decade or so to when Keller was in first or second grade. Now, try to picture that teacher’s pet of a student in the front row who’s always got his hand up and homework done. Got it? OK, now picture Keller — who was the student most likely to nail that kid with a block from the back of the class.
It’s not that Keller was a bully growing up. He was just, as his mother, Annette, said, a “challenging” child who “always seemed to be bored.”
Well, this wasn’t necessarily true when he was riding his bike around the neighborhood, usually venturing a touch beyond the boundaries set by his parents. And it certainly wasn’t true when Keller was holding something that he could potentially zip through the air.
Annette first noticed her son’s arm strength when he would hurl tennis balls from the top of his neighborhood block down to the bottom. He added eggs, rocks, tomatoes and an array of other objects to his arsenal, and after a few broken windows and other minor property damage, Mom joked that “he caused our homeowners insurance rate to go way up.”
Unfortunately, Keller’s GPA could never quite keep up with his velocity or trajectory. Consistently bringing home a report card flooded with C’s, he had less of a grade point average and more of a grade point AVERAGE.
As you might imagine, this didn’t go over well with his former serviceman of a father. But to Sean Keller, it was moot. He wasn’t thinking about earning a scholarship to a prestigious track and field school. He was thinking about a different uniform entirely.
“I wanted to be in the military,” Keller said. “I really did. I wanted to be in the Navy. You get to travel, you get to meet so many kinds of people, and you get so much discipline. That was something that I needed.”
A stint in the armed forces would remain Keller’s objective throughout middle school and upon his entrance to high school. It continued as his career goal during his freshman year — even after Heritage upperclassman Harrison Dean casually suggested to him, “hey, we should throw javelin for the track team.”
His plans to enlist persisted as a sophomore … until he threw 193 feet in the state championships and finished third. Suddenly, Keller realized there might be another way to represent his country.
So he hooked up with esteemed javelin coach Scott Halley and gave his technique a complete reboot. He began lifting weights to supplement his natural talent with a boost of muscle.
By the end of his junior year, Keller threw a Washington-record 232 feet and went on to win the state title. And this summer, he is scheduled to compete in Spain and Finland.
Pleasantly enough, Keller’s grades have improved at a similar rate to that of his throwing. Then again, he has had a lot more time to study.
Last summer, when Keller brought home the release form that would allow him to play football for a fourth straight season, his dad wouldn’t sign it. Mike Keller prohibits his son from shooting hoops and staying out late, too.
Sean, who describes his situation as being “on lockdown” protested at first — especially the football denial. But while he can toast any high school kid in the nation in a javelin competition, he still can’t seem to out-duel his father in an argument.
“I told him ‘Sean, you’re going to be a good to average football player, but you have a chance to do something extraordinary in javelin,’ ” said Mike Keller, adding that he was concerned that Sean would injure himself playing football. “You have to wake up. You’re a track athlete.”
Instead, Keller played golf for Heritage last fall.
Keller admits that he was pleased with his father’s restrictions once track season came around. And this weekend, Keller will attempt to defend his title at the Class 4A state championships in Tacoma, where he is eying Crouser’s national high school record of 255-4, a mark Crouser recorded just after 2010 prep season.
After that, he’ll try to narrow down his choice for college (Oklahoma and Oregon are in the running, among others), spend some time with his girlfriend, and prepare for the Olympic trials.
Does he have a future in the armed forces? Probably not. But he can still attain everything he’s dreamed of because of his arm’s forces.
“I still get to represent the U.S.,” Keller said. “Only a handful of people literally get to go to the Olympic trials and then go to world’s and represent the U.S. Every time I think about it, my body tingles.”