INDIANAPOLIS – Two days before her first state championship, Semira Killebrew was hospitalized and on the verge of an appendectomy. Two years before that, she endured a hip injury so severe it imperiled her track and field future.
The Brebeuf Jesuit (Indianapolis) sprinter has overcome all that to become the fastest teenage girl in Indiana history, and among the fastest in the world. Then again, she has been wowing ’em since she was 6 years old, racing her brothers in the street or outrunning those three and four years older.
It was not always about how fast she was. It was how short she was.
What is that little kid doing out there?
She stands 5 feet. She looks more like the gymnast she once was than the athlete she became. She takes inspiration from Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, a 5-foot Jamaican often considered the greatest female sprinter ever.
“Because of my height, a lot of people have doubted me,” Killebrew said.
There can be no more doubts.
In the time it takes to tap out a text, she delivered a message Saturday night. She won the 100 meters in 11.24 seconds in the Brooks PR Invitational at Seattle, crushing the state record and becoming the second-fastest high school girl of 2019.
She is fastest among those eligible to represent the United States because first is Briana Williams, who lives in the Miami area but represents Jamaica. Killebrew will try to make a national team Saturday night in the under-20 USA Championships at Miramar, Fla.
Years ahead of her age
Killebrew’s rise is an outcome of ambition, nature and nurture. Track is who she is, even if not all she is. She plans to study pre-medicine and psychology at the University of North Carolina.
Her former Indiana Storm club coach, Michael Vinson, said Killebrew used to tell him about track dreams when she was as young as 9. Vinson said of all the athletes he has coached, including 12-time state champion Lynna Irby, Killebrew was as serious as any.
“Some people have art and drawing and singing to express themselves,” Killebrew said. “Track is just the best way to express myself.”
She has four older brothers in a blended family, including Aaron Killebrew, a former Indiana State football player. He was fifth in the state in the 200 meters for Evansville Harrison in 2013. Her father, Rico, was a multisport athlete at Evansville Bosse.
Rico and Killebrew’s mother, Toni, struggled to agree on a name for their daughter before settling on Semira (pronounced Suh-MEER-uh). Middle syllable is pronounced the same as that of her father’s full name, Ramirco. “Semira” has origins in Hebrew meaning “from heaven.”
The girl tried soccer and gymnastics but preferred track, learning to come out of starting blocks when she was 4. She has had some devoted coaches, although Brebeuf coach Karl Knerr insisted her parents have been her best coaches. The parents have read books, listened to podcasts and spoken to coaches around the country about training.
“We’ve been around her so long, we kind of know what works for her,” her father said.
Still, the parents wanted her to join a track club. So after one summer elsewhere, they took her to Vinson for a winter practice. He was at Ben Davis High School, where he was an assistant coach. He saw a “little teeny girl” and assumed it was Semira’s younger sister.
Nope. That was Semira. She was 6. The coach pitted her against 8- and 9-year-olds.
“And she’s leaving people,” Vinson recalled. “I’ve never been more amazed seeing somebody at a first practice. Or more blown away.”
Others responded similarly. Killebrew became “a national darling” of summer track because of her speed and stature, Vinson said. She acquired nicknames like Little Mama and won multiple age-group titles.
When she was 9, she was running the 400 meters in a Junior Olympics at Sacramento, Calif., and came rolling out of the final turn.
“She had the whole crowd standing up and rooting for her,” Vinson said.
The next year, at Wichita, Kan., she was No. 1 seed in the 200 meters. When she went to check in, all the girls waited for their names to be called. Hers never was.
Vinson saw her speak to officials, and it turns out she mistakenly was never entered. Her father was so worried when she did not appear for prelims that he ran to the other side of the stadium, fearing his daughter was kidnapped. Officials let her run in a separate heat but required her to wait for an hour in a trailer, where she could not warm up. It was “kind of intimidating” to run all by herself, she said.
By this time, the crowd was behind her, and you know what happened next: Running solo, she was the fastest girl of the prelims. She won the 200 meters two days later, and the 100 the day after that.
“Think about a 10-year-old going out and doing that,” Vinson said. “That not only tells you about her character, but about her poise. She’s years ahead of her age.”
No slowing down
She was raised in Pike Township, as were Irby and Ramiah Elliott, a four-time state champion for North Central as a freshman. The family moved to Washington Township, and Killebrew said she enrolled at Brebeuf because the private school “lets you grow and be whoever you want to be.”
As a freshman, she won the first of four small-school titles in the 60 meters at the Hoosier State Relays, an unofficial state indoor meet. But in an April outdoor meet at North Central, in the 400-meter relay, she felt “a really big pop in my hip.”
The injury was diagnosed as apophysitis, in which cartilage tore loose from a growth plate. Doctors compared it to a Ferrari engine being too strong for a Chevy chassis. It was a painful setback that kept Killebrew on crutches for two months. Mic Roessler, football coach and art teacher at Brebeuf, encouraged her to research the condition and her physique.
The injury, Killebrew said, was a turning point. She focused on other interests, such as painting and academics, and became more serious than ever about her sport.
Weightlifting was out. She began using sophisticated methods involving nutrition, meditation, core strengthening, speed training, hill workouts and pool recovery.
“She loves track and field. That’s what she wants to do,” Knerr said. “She works at it year-round like no one else.”
As a sophomore, Killebrew finished third at state in the 100 meters (behind Irby’s state record) but was showing a return to form. At the Marion County meet, Irby had to come from behind to beat her.
It was not until she was a junior that Killebrew felt wholly recovered. Then, after a Memorial Day cookout with friends, she developed pain under her ribs and could not breathe without pain. Her mother was transporting her to a CVS to buy Tums, then instead took her daughter to the emergency room.
Killebrew was diagnosed with appendicitis. Doctors wanted to operate.
“We’re like, ‘Whoa.’ We have state in three days,” she said.
She was tightly wrapped around her diaphragm when released from the hospital on a Wednesday. She tried running the next day, then decided to compete on that Friday. She had missed one state meet already and wasn’t missing another.
She proceeded to run five races in four hours, winning all but the 200-meter final. She was state champion in the 100 and brought Brebeuf from behind, out of lane 9, to victory in the 400 relay. Brebeuf finished second in team standings, best in school history and highest by a small school since 1996. Brebeuf’s enrollment was 794. Combined enrollment of other schools in the top four was 12,000.
“That was truly an amazing thing I will never forget my entire life,” Knerr said.
Sticking with it
Killebrew prefaced her epic 100 meters in March’s indoor nationals at New York. In the 60 meters, she led more than half the race before finishing third in 7.34, also a state record. She was overtaken by a world champion, Williams, and national champion, Thelma Davies of Philadelphia. (At last year’s under-20 World Championships, Williams, then 16, became the youngest to win the 100 and 200.)
Since then, Killebrew has a 23-1 record, losing only to Elliott in the 200-meter state final. Killebrew won the 100 in 11.63 against a headwind of 1.5 meters per second. According to conversion tables, if she had run with the wind, her time would have been 11.39 and broken Irby’s record of 11.41.
The Seattle trip included sightseeing and bonding with other invited athletes. As for the race itself, all Killebrew remembers is sound of the gun, first step “and then kind of blacking out and crossing the finish line.”
Not until three minutes later did she learn the time was 11.24, with a legal wind of +1.6. Killebrew, 18, now ranks seventh in the world among under-20s and 19th on the all-time high school list (including two non-U.S. sprinters ahead of her).