TEMPE, Ariz. — Keia Pinnick’s career in track and field began unintentionally, a product of her being in the right place at the right time.
Then a fourth grader, Pinnick and her older sister Keisha had tagged along as their brothers signed up for the Aurora (Ill.) Flyers track club. Flyers coach Tom Boatright, always looking to keep everyone involved, told the girls to get on the track, too.
“I just happened to beat the fastest girl that they had at the time,” Pinnick recalls. “So I kind of just got started like that.”
Pinnick has come a long way since that day, as she’s now beginning her final collegiate season at Arizona State with national championship expectations, but her accomplishments on the track did not come without a challenging road early in life.
Born in Detroit, Pinnick and her sister spent much of their early childhood between Michigan and her father’s home state of Alabama. But because of difficult circumstances at home, of which Pinnick doesn’t remember much or care to elaborate, the sisters were placed in foster care in Detroit, where they remained for three years.
In 2000, Keia and Keisha were adopted by Roderick and Deidre Pinnick in Aurora, Ill., a suburb about an hour west of Chicago. The move offered stability and a quiet community life the sisters had been lacking.
“We had decided to adopt siblings because they’re usually harder to place,” Deidre Pinnick said. “We found the girls, just made a connection and went from there.”
But the relocation also separated the sisters from their younger sister Mandy, an infant at the time who was adopted by a family in Maryland. Pinnick says she saw Mandy once shortly after her adoption but not again until this past Christmas, when the three sisters reunited in Maryland.
In the move to Aurora, Pinnick also gained two brothers, Chris and Jaki, who had been adopted a year earlier by the family.
“We both had large families growing up,” Deidre Pinnick said. “We wanted our kids to experience the same. … And we wanted the kids to grow up in a great place with some advantages they wouldn’t normally have.”
One of those advantages proved to be a wide variety of opportunities to keep busy. Deidre said she and Roderick wanted to introduce their children to as many activities as possible. For Keia, it was track and field that stuck.
“From the time she started doing it there was a big smile on here face,” Deidre Pinnick said. “You could tell it was just one of those things that just hit it off with her. When she gets on the track, it’s her world.”
Said Keia: “Track is pretty much my life. That’s how I got here, how I got my education, how I got my school paid for. It’s how I met most of my close friends.”
Deidre figures it was the confidence that came with success in track that kept her interested. Keia so loved the sport she wanted to try everything. That explains how she wound up doing heptathlon, which includes javelin, high jump, shot put, long jump, 800 meters, 200 meters and 100 meter hurdles.
Pinnick thrived at Waubonsie Valley High School, earning seven state titles and several AAU national championships with the Flyers. She caught the attention of Arizona State head coach Greg Kraft, who admits his first impression of Pinnick focused mainly on her height at just 5-foot-5.
“She’s just a maniacal worker, and her focus is laser-like,” Kraft said. “She brings so many things to the table that overcome her lack of size.”
Pinnick took first place at last year’s Mountain Pacific Sports Federation championships — essentially the indoor conference championships — and second at the Pac-12 championships in the outdoor season.
This year, expectations are higher.
“I think this year can definitely culminate with an NCAA championship in Eugene, Oregon (in June),” Kraft said. “I think she definitely has the tools and the focus for that.”
Pinnick has the same expectations for herself, especially after an injury kept her out of the NCAA championships last year. She got off on the right foot in the team’s first meet of the 2013 season, the Lumberjack Team Challenge in Flagstaff on Jan 12. Pinnick placed first in the 60m hurdles and second in the long jump, behind only teammate and best friend Christabel Nettey.
(UPDATE: Pinnick established a new career best in the pentathlon at the Texas A&M Challenge on Jan. 25, placing first in four of five events and scoring 4,208 points — exceeding the top collegiate mark in the nation this year. Her score is better than all but two athletes form the 2012 indoor season.)
“This is my last year, and all my other years I don’t feel like I’ve reached my full potential of what I can do at the national level,” Pinnick said. “So I wanted to start off with a bang, and I want to keep rolling because I want to win both indoors (pentathlon) and outdoors (heptathlon)” at the NCAA championships.”
Pinnick is prepared to put in the necessary work. It’s a message her parents have stressed to all their children.
“We just tried to tell them you can be whatever you want to be, you just have to understand it takes hard work to be good at anything,” Deidre Pinnick said. “Keia is probably the hardest working of our kids. She’s come to understand that hard work breeds success.”
Pinnick is hopeful of earning a professional contract after college, with the ultimate goal of competing at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
For as much as Pinnick prefers to remain in the present, she knows her past has molded her. She’s learned to adapt quickly and appreciate opportunities. And were it not for her winding road, as difficult as it might have been at times, she might not be thriving as she is now.
“I can definitely say if I was still in Detroit and I was living that life, there’s no telling where I would be right now,” Pinnick said. “The opportunities just weren’t there that I had in Aurora when I was adopted. We were taken to good schools, lived in a better community. It just worked out for the better.”