EDINBURG — The University of Texas Pan-American’s Westly Keating, a Rio Grande Valley native, raced his way into the UTRGV Athletics Hall of Fame Class of 2020 with one of the most decorated running careers in recent history.
Keating, who ran cross country and indoor and outdoor track for the Broncs from 2002 to 2006, became one of the best distant runners of his era nationally, behind the support of the Valley, but he faced a long road to get to that point.
“I don’t have parents, so in high school I lived with roommates,” he said. “I had a bunch of friends I used to live with.”
Keating lived with high school friends in Brownsville and later Pharr throughout his teens before joining the cross country and track and field programs at the University of Texas at Austin.
But after realizing the difficulty of his situation in Austin, he ran into one of those high school roommates who made him an offer that set the rest of his running career in motion.
“When I went to UT, my scholarship only covered my room and board a little bit and my tuition fees, so by the end of the semester I was kind of struggling with money,” Keating said. “I ended up coming back home, and I met up with one of my old roommates from high school and he let me stay with him. I started staying with him and I ended up just staying down here.”
Keating talked to the then-Pan American cross country coach and had a friend on the team vouch for him as well. Ultimately, he enrolled at UTPA and joined the cross country and track and field teams where he noticed some poignant differences between the two programs.
“We needed 20 track and field athletes for the whole program, and if we didn’t have 20 athletes, that meet would not count for us. In the NCAA, you need to have so many meets to count as a Division I program,” he said. “I would have to run every single track meet and I didn’t have a chance to have any training weeks. At one of the bigger schools, you focus on your training more and worry about just racing your big races. Over here, I had to run every race.”
Keating quickly burst onto the scene, though, winning the Independent Runner of the Year award, and was named the National Independent Cross Country Champion and an NCAA All-American in both his freshman and sophomore seasons.
He set the school-record time for the 3,000-meter run (8:16.828) and broke the program record in the 5,000-meter run (14:26.06) in 2003. Running for a small school at the national level made Keating compete with a chip on his shoulder and the determination to represent the Valley.
“I think competing at a small school, people don’t expect much from you. I was one of the best runners in the nation basically all through my college career,” he said. “If you didn’t go to UT or Arkansas or Colorado or Florida or Stanford, they never expected me to do good in races. All of the sudden, they would see me at the top of the field, and they were like, ‘Who is this guy we’ve never heard of?’”
During his junior year, however, Keating came down with an illness that forced him to stop running. He visited a local doctor who diagnosed him with pulmonary hypertension and was told he may never run again and could need heart and lung transplants.
“That doctor became a really good friend of mine and when I walked in to see him, I told him, ‘Look, I don’t know why I’m here. I can’t afford to pay you, I don’t’ have any insurance,’” he said. “He’s like, ‘I’ve been a big fan of yours since you were in high school and I’ve always wanted to meet you. I’m not going to charge you anything and I just want you to keep coming to see me and we’ll see if we can fix this problem.”
Thanks to the help of his doctor, Keating was able to rebound for his senior season to set programs records in the 3,000-, 5,000- and 10,000- runs as well as the 6k, 8k and 10k.
He dedicated his running career to the community because of the support he received throughout his running career. Now working in health care, Keating has embraced a role in giving back to the community that supported him.
“I felt like the community always gave to me and I just wanted to try to give back to the community as much as I could, and the only way I could was through my running at that point in time,” he said. “Now I work in health care; I’m a physician assistant, so I try to do the same thing if I have patients that can’t afford to pay for their care. I see them for free, I help them out and I try to do things like that now.”
Keating will be formally inducted to the UTRGV Athletics Hall of Fame along with the rest of the Class of 2020 at an honorary luncheon at 11 a.m. Saturday in the UTRGV Ballroom in Edinburg.