COLUMBIA — Dani Kelley's summer wasn't much of a vacation.
A junior cross-country runner and tennis player at Stephens College, Kelley suffered an injury two days in a row last summer. The two injuries almost ruined what would end up being one of her best running seasons.
The first one happened on June 21 in the Kettle Moraine region of southeast Wisconsin. Kelley and her best friend from her hometown of Sycamore, Ill., took the two-hour drive north to go mountain biking. Kettle Moraine is where Kelley has gone every year since eighth grade for a Father's Day trip with her dad.
Kelley had wanted to return to Kettle Moraine soon after her last trip there. Kelley loves to bike, but trails around Sycamore aren't as exciting as the steep hills in this part of Wisconsin.
"Sycamore is all flat," Kelley said. "There's one hill, and I live on top of it. I'm pretty sure it's man-made, too."
The Kettle Moraine trail Kelley and her friend, Grace Heal, biked certainly wasn't flat. The first five minutes of their ride were all downhill.
"Everything was going great," Kelley said. "Then, what do you know? A tree was down on the trail."
Kelley, well ahead of Heal, hit the downed tree and flipped over it. She landed on her arm and broke it.
The next day, back home in Sycamore with her arm in a cast, Kelley couldn't sit still. She asked her mom to drive her to the YMCA so she could ride a stationary bicycle.
As Kelley’s mother turned left into the fitness club’s parking lot, a car slammed the back of Kelley’s vehicle. Items exploded from the trunk, including Kelley's phone, and her body was whipped around within the car.
“I opened the door and yelled at the guy (who hit them),” Kelley said. “Then I gave him a hug. I was so confused.”
Kelley suffered whiplash, a concussion and neck injuries that would leave her bedridden until mid-August.
While she was recovering, Stephens College was in the process of hiring a new cross-country coach. Unable to train in the preseason, Kelley was nervous she wouldn’t have a spot on the team. But after talking to athletics director Deb Duren and meeting with new coach Evelina Slatinska (who has since resigned to pursue a business venture with her husband), Kelley was assured that her place was safe.
"Dani is everything you'd want a runner to be, so we supported her to the max," Duren said.
Kelley was still injured when the cross-country season began Aug. 1, but through her hard work and determination, Kelley had what she called her best season to date. Kelley finished first among her teammates in the University of Central Missouri Mule Run, second on the team at the Southern Stampede in Joplin and 25th overall in the American Midwest Conference meet.
“I think the accidents set me back, but they made me a better runner because I wanted this season to happen so badly,” Kelley said.
Kelley, a fashion communications major, will have the new challenge of allocating the time to run while interning at a stylish wedding planning company, Big City Bride, in Chicago.
"Dani is a very well-balanced woman," Duren said.
Kelley acknowledges she’ll be busy with her job, but that won’t stop her from waking up early enough in the morning to go for a run.
“I will never stop running,” Kelley said. “There were times when it was difficult to run and pursue my other dreams. In high school I practiced track in the morning and tennis after school. It was tough, but I think I have the balancing act down.”
Kelley doesn’t know what she wants to do after graduation, but this intrepid athlete knows where she'll end up.
She says she'll live in the San Francisco area while pursuing her interest in fashion in some capacity. She'll be close to the city but also close enough to hop in her car, drive to the where the redwood trees grow and run or bike under the world's tallest canopy, unafraid of anything that might get in the way of her path.