It’s heartbreaking to realize just how close BYU senior runner Anna Camp-Bennett had been to winning a national championship during her career as a Cougar.

In November of 2019, she was the No. 5 runner for the BYU women’s cross country team at the NCAA Championships in Terre Haute, Indiana, as the Cougars came up just six points short and ended up second behind Arkansas.

“I definitely had this feeling of if only I had been able to do better,” Camp-Bennett said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “We had our top three girls do so well, so I was definitely overwhelmed with that feeling that if only I had pushed a little bit more, or if only I’d been able to be a little more fit, or something like that, we would’ve won.”

That would be a tough burden to bear for anyone, but that was only the first example.

Camp-Bennett is also a very successful track athlete and was part of BYU’s distance medley relay (DMR) team. In March 2020, she and the other runners were confident they were in position to win their race at the NCAA Indoor Championships in New Mexico.

But then COVID-19 hit.

“Anna was also one of those women that was standing in Albuquerque, New Mexico, when the NCAA canceled the indoor championships,” Cougar associate director of cross country and track and field Diljeet Taylor said. “She was on that DMR team that was going to win a national title. It was a very hard thing for her.”

The BYU runners did just that at the 2021 NCAA Indoor Championships on March 12, setting a school record as they won the national title.

Camp-Bennett, however, didn’t have any indoor track eligibility left, so once again she didn’t get to be part of a national championship.

On March 15, it was finally her turn.

Camp-Bennett played a key role in helping propel the Cougar women’s cross country team to the team title at the 2020 NCAA Cross Country Championships at the OSU Cross Country Course in Stillwater, Oklahoma.

“When we figured out we had won, it was probably one of the most emotional times I’ve ever had in running,” Camp-Bennett said. “I haven’t often cried in running but there were definitely a lot of emotions that went into it. I think it was just because it had been so long since we’ve even had a championship race. It was so exciting.”

Camp-Bennett ended up being BYU’s top finisher as she came in No. 11 overall. Taylor said she sees Camp-Bennett’s story as being an inspiration both now and in the future.

“Cross country is not really where Anna’s heart is but as her coach I knew if she found that confidence and determination within her, she would be very successful in cross country,” Taylor said. “I always like to tell these women the comeback is always greater than the setback. For her to wrap her head around that to be our No. 1, to lead us to a national title and to place 11th, it’s huge for Anna Camp-Bennett.

“It is huge for all the Anna Camp-Bennetts who are out there. There are going to be so many more women that come through this program that I will be able to use this example of someone whose strong suit was never cross country, but she decided she was going to give herself an opportunity to be one of the best cross country runners in the nation.”

While Camp-Bennett’s experience was a powerful tale of growth and redemption, it was only one small part of the journey to the top for the Cougar women’s cross country team.

“Win the wait”

BYU athletes and coaches had to face the challenges and unknowns of the COVID-19 pandemic during 2020, just like the rest of the world.

With limits on gathering and then the postponement of the traditional fall season, there was a lot of unknowns in the cross country world.

Taylor encouraged the Cougars to embrace the challenge, to try to make the most of the time they had.

“It was different than anything we have prepared for prior to it,” Taylor said. “Everything you know as a coach kind of had to be put on the back burner. We were creating a new manual of how we navigated through 2020. I really got into fix it mode. I approached it with confidence.”

The mantra for BYU was “win the wait” as the athletes sought to be better when things started to open back up than they were going into the pandemic closures.

As the season began, she instructed the athletes to not be concerned with the lack of familiarity or limited competitions.

“The message was to prepare like everyone is better than you but compete like no one is,” Taylor said. “Why that was so important is because the competition is where you get confidence. But this was not a traditional year and so we just kept preparing like everyone was better than us. Then when we get to competitions, it was like no, we’re here to win.”

Focus on “gold”

When the Cougar women’s squad earned early respect and got high rankings, Taylor wanted her team to realize that they had a target on their back from the start.

“We were the school that people wanted to beat because that would ensure that they would get a spot in the championship,” Taylor said. “So I kind of used that early on and told them that we were the ones with the gold. After a race in Las Vegas when we were missing two of our top runners, we still won and our freshmen were so cute. They were like, ‘Coach, we kept all the gold.’”

She then used that concept when she talked to her team the night before the NCAA tournament.

“I said that we’ve had the gold all season but that in the race, nobody has it,” Taylor said. “We have to gather it. Every single one of you has to get some gold.”

She explained that a misconception might be that the gold metaphor is about coming in first but she wanted the athletes to see it as winning in their own areas of the competition.

“I said that the gold is what is around you, the people you’re racing and whoever is in your race,” Taylor said. “I wanted them to be scrappy and get that gold. We kind of made the joke of being a gold digger. That was kind of the theme, try to gather as much as you can and be the best you can be, be as gritty as you can and dig as deep as you can. They did that on that one day and they got the gold.”

Running smart

Heart and toughness are necessary to be successful in cross country — but so is having a game plan.

“We were really trying to group up,” Camp-Bennett said. “Aubrey (Frentheway) and I had been running together all season and so we knew we wanted to run together. There’s just something about running with your teammate that makes the race a little bit easier. We also knew we didn’t want to take any of the wind, so our plan was to run together. We didn’t want to make any big moves until the end.”

Once the competition got going, BYU senior Whittni Orton moved to the front of the pack. She stayed there for much of the race, even though she had been limited by an injury during the season.

Having Orton be that aggressive put some strain on Taylor, since it wasn’t exactly as the coaches had planned things out. Still, Taylor said she felt confident as she saw the girls pass the different checkpoints.

“I wanted to make sure we were able to maintain our position,” Taylor said. “For the majority of the race, I just continued to get confident. I was getting updates on my phone with what the scoring looked like. We put ourselves in a very good position to be to be in contention for the win.”

What she wasn’t clear about was where other teams like North Carolina State were at. When Orton began to falter late in the race, it wasn’t clear how that would impact the team competition.

So Taylor called out to Camp-Bennett.

“I told her to go help Whittni and she responded,” Taylor said. “Her cadence changed immediately. She knew what she had to do and she followed through with it. I couldn’t be happier that it was Anna because she’s a great leader and a great runner.”

Camp-Bennett said she heard Taylor and picked up the pace, which set the tone for the finish of the race.

“As I crossed. I pretty quickly saw Whittni and Aubrey come in,” Camp-Bennett said. “I was like, OK, we’re still there. Then I swear it was so soon that I turned around and saw Sara (Musselman) laying on the ground and I saw McKenna Lee finishing. I was like, whoa, I think that’s a lot quicker than they’ve been coming in after me in any other race. I was like, I think we just did something great, but I’m not sure.”

Becoming national champs

As the scores got posted, Taylor wondered if there had been a mistake since it showed that BYU had a bigger lead than she anticipated. Camp-Bennett said she didn’t dare get too excited because of the possibility of the scores changing.

When the results became official, then it was time to celebrate.

“There are often times when you run a team race and someone gets carried by the strength of the team, but this was a team effort,” Taylor said. This was all the women that gathered the gold and so that’s pretty special. When you’re on a team like that and when you’re coaching a team like that, it goes to everyone. I was already in tears without knowing that we won. I could see that we were, you know, we had five women in the top 41 but I was like, wow, these women just brought it, They just gave it everything they had. You can’t ask for anything more as a coach.”

It took a minute for the reality to set in. Orton was still recovering from the exertion during the team interview on ESPN and Camp-Bennett recalled how Orton said, “wait, we won?” on camera.

It was a special moment for Taylor and for the entire squad.

“It was the hardest two and a half months ever in my coaching career,” Taylor said. “I needed to be all in. I expect them to always give 100%, so I needed to show that I was also dedicated to the cause. It was just pure joy and pride in what these women have built and who they have become. All those emotions just simultaneously gathered. They got a clip of when they finally actually really knew we had won and it was like, wow, we just did it. It was a very thrilling moment.”

Camp-Bennett said she felt proud to be a representative of BYU cross country.

“It was the pinnacle of the last five years,” Camp-Bennett said. “That includes all the girls who have run for BYU before, even the girls in the early 2000s and the late 1990s that had made the program great. I felt a lot of connection to all those girls that have gone through the program and I felt like we had done it for everybody.”

Daily Herald sports reporter Jared Lloyd can be reached at 801-344-2555 or jlloyd@heraldextra.com. Twitter: @JaredrLloyd. Instagram: @JaredrLloyd.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!