For nine years this Scunthorpe-born, City of Sheffield swimming star was a national standard 400-metre individual medley swimmer. She had a few ups – British medals and a European junior silver medal – but more than her fair share of downs – enough injuries to bring about serious bouts of depression.
The last of those lows was failing to qualify for the 2022 Commonwealth Games, which brought about a change in discipline and approach.
“I was lost afterwards,” she says after seeing her life’s work in the pool come up short. “I knew I didn’t want to retire like that, but it was on my mind. I did wonder: is there any point carrying on?
“That’s when I took a bit of a risk.
“I sat down with my coach in Sheffield, Mike Taylor, and we said ‘where do we go from here?’
“I felt like I needed a mental break and had always wanted to try open water, so after missing the Commonwealths I shifted focus onto that, and just tried to have as much fun as possible.”
And ever since, Keegan has been reaping the rewards of that risk.
She spent the rest of 2022 adapting her training and entering open water races to gain experience.
“I went to a meet in in Majorca and won it. I just thought let’s give this a go. Whether it works out or not, I really love it,” she says.
“After a while someone from British Swimming got in touch recommending a race in Spain, a small international competition, and I won both my races again. It made me realise I should take this seriously.”
She only swam her first 10k (Olympic distance) last March. Within four months she was swimming her third at a world championships, a level she had never reached in her decade of competing in the pool.
She finished 18th in Japan. If she finishes in the top 16 out of the 72 competitors in Doha this Saturday morning, Keegan will have all-but assured herself of a spot at the Paris Olympics.
“It’s been a pretty steep learning curve but I’ve loved the journey, and now I’m really excited to get in tomorrow,” Keegan told The Yorkshire Post just hours before the race.
The open water marathon swim is a gruelling examination of a swimmer’s strength and willpower. Keegan has adapted her training to take in more kilometres a week (75k on a normal week, 90k closer to competition) split between City of Sheffield’s Ponds Forge and Manvers Lake in Rotherham in the summer months. But other than getting kilometres in the body, nothing can prepare you for the physical and mental test of the six-lap, 10km course that takes two hours to complete.
“I’ve been grabbed by the neck before and dunked under a buoy – that is not a fun experience,” says Keegan.
“There can be a lot of accidental contact in a race like this, especially when it’s really choppy. There are people who deliberately go out of their way to punch you. I’ve never done that, it’s not how I race.
“Although I have to admit, I have swum on top of people, so maybe I am a little annoying!
“But when you’re a strong, fast swimmer, it doesn’t play to your strengths to fight people because you’re just wasting energy.
“The best thing I can do is just focus on the swimming.
“You generally have no idea where you are in the race, either, you touch the pad at the end and the first thing you shout is: ‘where did I come?’
“You are so knackered after finishing, you feel it for days. I can barely string a sentence together for about three days. You are just so exhausted. I normally finish in a state of delirium.”
What about drinks, and the modern-day sporting adage of hydrate or die? How do you take fresh water on board to counter the salt water?
Keegan laughs at the image. “At the end of each lap our coaches are stood on a pontoon with a feeding pole about five metres in length. On the end of it is a cup holder where they put your drinks, so I make up my drinks the night before and after every lap you have the option of having a drink.
“You don’t really get chance to stop and swill your mouth out, but it’s a part of the race and you have to accept you’re going to have that horrible saltburn in the back of your throat. You’re in so much pain elsewhere that it barely matters.”
While suffering physically, Keegan’s next line sums up where she is mentally.
“It’s a nice feeling when you know you’ve given everything,” she says.
She’d have taken that self-appreciation a few years ago when injuries, illness and Covid were taking away her ability to do what she loved most – swim and exercise – and plunging her deeper into depression.
“I didn’t know how to cope without exercise. It was a really tough period and I felt really alone,” the 26-year-old reflects.
She decided the best way out of it was to use her experiences to help others who might be struggling, so along with a few other athletes set up a not-for-profit organisation focused on female athletes’ mental health.
“If they are going through a rough time they can fill out a form and have someone to chat to, someone on the other end of the phone who’s an athlete, who’s been there,” says Keegan.
“For me it’s been cathartic. When I started it I said if I can help one person get through a rough patch then that will be enough. But we’ve been able to help a lot of people. No one wants to go through rough times but they happen, and for me it’s had some meaning, and it’s done some good in the world.
“It was a really dark period for me but something really lovely came out of it and hopefully other athletes don’t have to feel the same.”
In Doha today, Keegan swims for a spot in Paris alongside another Yorkshire swimmer in Leah Crisp of Wakefield, a former British 1,500m freestyle champion in the pool who switched to open water.
“We get on well, Leah being from Yorkshire as well,” says Keegan of Crisp, who started in Leeds but is now based in Bath.
“The best case scenario is we both qualify together. For me, I’m in a good head space, nice and relaxed, because I know that’s how I perform at my best.
“I stuck around in swimming and it’s paid off, and here I am about to race for an Olympic spot which when I was a kid I could never have dreamed of.”