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May 22, 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — It was the middle of July in 2016, and Kelly McKee was on vacation in Florida. Bryan Fetzer, director of UVA’s cross country and track & field programs, was in Bydgoszcz, Poland, for the IAAF World Junior Championships.

Some 5,000 miles and the Atlantic Ocean separated them, but in a phone call Fetzer talked to McKee about becoming a Cavalier. Her club coach had contacted Fetzer after McKee, who had been a freshman at Kansas in 2015-16, expressed a desire to explore her options elsewhere.

“Things weren’t going exactly how I wanted them to at KU,” McKee said last week. “Last minute, I kind of decided that I wanted to go somewhere else.”

A whirlwind visit to UVA followed for McKee, who met with assistant coach Mario Wilson and a couple of team members who happened to be in town. One of them, javelin thrower Caitlin Mautz, talked about “how the team atmosphere is so great here and everyone’s so friendly,” McKee recalled.

McKee liked what she saw in Charlottesville. She completed the necessary paperwork and was admitted to UVA “at the absolute last second,” Fetzer said. “It was a pretty quick turnaround.”

Preparing for the move from Kansas to Virginia “was so stressful in late July, early August,” McKee said, “but it was so worth it. I’m very happy.”

She’s been a welcome addition to the Cavaliers’ program. At the recent ACC outdoor championships in Atlanta, the 5-foot-6 McKee placed second in the triple jump with a personal-best mark of 13.17 meters (43 feet, 2 inches).

“We were fortunate to get her,” said Wilson, who coaches the horizontal jumps at UVA.

Fetzer said: “Jumping 13 meters, that really established her as one of the best jumpers in the country. When you get over the 13-meter mark, that puts you in a different category.”

McKee, who hopes to major in computer science, is soft-spoken and quiet. That made it tough for Wilson to gauge how her visit to Charlottesville was going last summer.

“She didn’t say much, but academically she was a very good student and I knew that she could definitely do the work here,” he said. “Making the transition was my only concern.

“Luckily, the group took her in. They embraced her right away. She’s bonded very well with Mia Barron, who does the same events as her, so that’s her training partner. And I think all those things have helped her to make that transition smooth and seamless.”

Fetzer said: “It’s been fun to see her [become more comfortable] in the last couple months. She’s blossomed. You’ve seen her grow in confidence, and you’ve seen her [take part in] the team’s camaraderie. She’s got a great personality. She’s just shy by nature.”

When she joined the team last summer, McKee said, a lot of her new teammates figured she was a freshman.

“Halfway through the year, some people were like, `Wait, you’re a transfer?’ ” she said. “At first, I’m really quiet. That could be why.”

McKee is one of the 24 Cavaliers — 17 men and seven women — who qualified for the NCAA East Regional meet, which starts Thursday at Nutter Field House in Lexington, Kentucky. The top 12 finishers in each event will advance to the NCAA championships, June 7-10 in Eugene, Oregon.

“Even though I still have two more [years of eligibility],” McKee said, “I really hope it happens this year.”

Wilson said McKee “absolutely” has the ability to qualify for Eugene. He compared her to former UVA triple jumper Dallas Rose.

“Kelly is as talented as Dallas, and Dallas made it, so there’s no reason Kelly can’t,” Wilson said.

McKee, who also competes in the long jump, placed fifth in the triple jump at the ACC indoor championships in February.

“I did well,” she said, “but I would have liked to have done better.”

That McKee, a former gymnast, had great potential in the triple jump has been evident since she arrived in Charlottesville, Wilson said, “but initially it seemed like she lacked some confidence.

“She knew what she wanted to do, but I think she had the fear of actually going out there and putting it together. It’s been a long time coming. She’s fouled some good jumps over the course of the season, but [in Atlanta] she was definitely focused, and it showed on the runway.”

Her PR at the ACC outdoor meet was especially encouraging, McKee said, “because at the same time it felt super easy and super comfortable, so it didn’t feel like I was trying to force anything..”

McKee, 19, is from Overland Park, Kan., a suburb of Kansas City. A graduate of St. James Academy, she had never been to Virginia before her visit last summer. Her impressions of Charlottesville?

“I feel like people are healthier here,” she said, laughing. “People are always running around here, and I never see that in Kansas.”

She’s found, to her delight, that the dynamic in the Cavaliers’ program is different, too.

“It’s so much better in terms of team bonding and team atmosphere,” said McKee, whose training group this spring included Barron, Bridget Guy, Tedi DeMaria and Katie Freix.

“Honestly, I feel more than anything the team is probably the most important thing, because they’re your support system and they’re what builds you up. When you start getting good vibes from them, that’s usually when things start coming together.”

At the ACC outdoor championships, the UVA women placed eighth. The UVA men finished second — by a single point — after a controversial disqualification of Jordan Scott, the conference’s top triple jumper. After the meet, Fetzer spoke to his team, many of whose members, men and women alike, were overcome by emotion.

He talked about the principles that guide the program and what it stands for, and Fetzer’s words made McKee thankful again that she’d chosen Virginia.

“I feel like that was probably my favorite moment of being on the team,” she said, “because that was the point where I realized how close we all were and how much we all loved each other and supported each other.”

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