Ever since Michael O’Keeffe was a young boy in New Zealand, his father would tell him that life is all about stepping stones. He took this mentality and applied it to soccer, and the results were – to say the least – impressive.

O’Keeffe, a junior goalkeeper for the Stags, has qualified to play in the 2012 London Summer Olympics as a member of the New Zealand Under-23 team. With a 1-0 victory over Fiji on Sunday afternoon, the Oly-Whites of New Zealand sealed their place among the 16 teams fighting for the gold medal.

“I was actually commentating the MAAC [basketball] Championship, and I was contacted and told to coordinate flights so I could go back for qualifiers,” said O’Keeffe.

While O’Keeffe was a member of the team that qualified to go to London, his spot amongst the Olympians is not 100 percent certain. The Olympic competition is supposed to be for the Under-23 teams, but rules state that once the team has qualified, they are allowed to bring in three players over 23 years old.

With the addition of those three players, along with several others on the professional level, O’Keeffe will have to wait out the week to see where he stands. For the time being, however, O’Keeffe sees himself as second-string behind Major League Soccer goalkeeper for the Portland Timbers, Jake Gleeson.

“When we were [on the Under-17 team] it was a really good and healthy competition,” explained O’Keeffe. “I was pretty much the starter…until he took that spot. But we’ve got such a good relationship.”

A big part of O’Keeffe’s learning experience on the team has come from his relationship with Gleeson. “He’s helped me a lot. We just talk about [soccer]…I’ve learned so much from him about what the professional environment is about,” said O’Keeffe.

According to his Fairfield coach, Carl Rees, the professional environment is the best thing O’Keeffe can take away from his time with the Oly-Whites.

“It’s just a completely different level of competition. He’ll see the difference in preparing for a game of that caliber, and be able to see how more experienced people will prepare,” said Rees.

Rees and O’Keeffe were quick to praise Fairfield’s goalkeeper coach Javier Decima, saying that he has been a big factor in O’Keeffe’s, as well as Fairfield’s, success.

However, while skills such as preparedness are things all athletes can learn from excellent coaches like Decima, there are certain abilities that O’Keeffe has that can’t be learned. You either have it or you don’t. O’Keeffe’s mentality is virtually unmatched, according to Rees.

“He always sets very high standards for himself,” he said. “Technically, he is obviously a very gifted athlete. His technique in goal and his distribution is excellent. But it’s the mentality first and foremost.”

It is this determination that has made O’Keeffe one of the best goalkeepers in Fairfield’s program history.

In his junior season with the Stags, he had 18 appearances, 65 saves and only allowed 21 goals.

This sort of impressive season had the New Zealand coaches’ attention, even though O’Keefe still had to put in some additional effort to be seen.

“Since being here in the States, I suppose I’m sort of hidden from the coaches [back in New Zealand]. That’s part of the reason why I went back last summer. … That got me back on the radar and in front of the right coaches that were involved in the Olympic campaign,” said O’Keeffe.

After coming to play in the states, O’Keeffe said, “The next stepping stone I thought would have been to go pro, but the Olympics sort of bridged that gap and added another stepping stone.”

So far New Zealand, along with Brazil, Uruguay, Spain, Switzerland, Belarus, the UK, Egypt, Morocco, Gabon, South Korea, Japan and the UAE have all qualified for the Olympic Games. It will be a tough competition for the Oly-Whites, but O’Keeffe believes they are up to the task.

“I don’t think we’ve really put together a full 90 minutes of perfection,” he said. “It was enough to qualify and now we’ve got three months to really prepare well for the Olympics.”

By the end of the week, when O’Keeffe finds out if he will be on the flight to London, it will just be another stepping stone on his journey for the top.

As for bringing a gold medal back to Fairfield, O’Keeffe said, “It’ll be a tough, tough task. But we’ll see.”

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