BYU head women’s cross country coach Diljeet Taylor has a tradition before each NCAA championships race, one that she faithfully followed on Nov. 23, as the Cougars prepared to run in the biggest race of the season.
This time, however, something was a little bit different.
“Many years ago I realized that when women are racing in a national championship race, it is a very uncomfortable thing for them,” Taylor said in an interview last week. “It’s a really uncomfortable thing for me to pray out loud, so I started doing that only at national championships. After I prayed, I just knew it was going to go really well. I had a very good feeling about it. I knew they were going to race to the best of their ability. I walked away from that line and I was at peace with it. I’ve never felt that way before.”
BYU senior Courtney Wayment said that moment was special for the entire team.
“We were so happy, dancing before the race,” Wayment said. “In those last moments, she gave us hugs and then she prayed with us. That prayer was probably one of the most special prayers that I’ve ever been in. All the emotions were surfacing and I was like, I can’t be crying two minutes before the race! But the emotion was that we care about each other so deeply and we were going to do something special. It was a calm, reassuring feeling that this was what I had waited four years for. We had done everything we can and it was time to prove it to ourselves.”
Setting the stage
That snapshot before gun went of in many ways was a culmination for the Cougars, the confidence that comes with determination, preparation and cohesiveness.
“I think we knew we had a pretty special team coming into the 2019 season, even though we had a preseason ranking of ninth,” Taylor said. “I knew our team was better than that. I knew if we kept everyone healthy, we had a chance to do something really special.”
Wayment had been part of the squad throughout her collegiate career but said the team camaraderie made a big difference.
“A team can be full of All-Stars, and the All-Stars do their part and collectively that is what makes them great,” Wayment said. “But it isn’t as strong as where you have a team bond, where you make the team better and that makes the individual better. It’s more emotional on the women’s side, where it is about that bond and wanting each other to be their best selves as a person and as a runner. All the girls and the coaches have worked on building that culture.”
She said Taylor deserved a lot of credit for developing the mentality necessary to become a great team.
“We wanted it for Coach Taylor because she does all these things for us,” Wayment said. “I can’t even name all of them. She makes so many sacrifices and goes above and beyond. I feel like I will always be indebted to her for all that she has done for me.”
Taylor, on the other hand, said her goals were to have the girls have the most success possible.
“It kills me when they say they wanted to win one for me because this isn’t about me,” Taylor said. “It’s about them. That’s what makes it a little bit tough is because you see four years of what they have done. They are amazing people.”
The motto for the team during the season was “Tougher than You,” something Taylor had put on pens for the girls so they could see it throughout each day leading up to race day.
“I don’t know who has the most talented team,” Taylor said. “I knew I didn’t have the most talented team in the country but I wanted to have the toughest team in the country — and they raced tough.”
A race to run
The course in Terre Haute, Indiana, was in terrible condition. Cold weather and the muddy course likely weren’t ideal for many of the runners but the BYU squad loved the challenge.
“Every year at the NCAAs it’s pretty cold and I think that plays to our advantage because we train in Utah and it gets pretty chilly here too,” Taylor said. “I sent out a message to the girls with the weather the week of the race and said, ‘let it snow, let it snow, let it snow, the cold never bothered us anyway.’ Our women were prepared mentally and physically. The mud played a factor in it because we knew we had to get out and get in good position because if it is muddy it’s hard to make up ground.”
Wayment said the Cougars would’ve made things even worse if they could.
“We wanted it to get colder and get muddier,” Wayment said. “Adding some rain or snow would’ve been awesome. We are used to terrible temperatures. Coach always emphasizes being tough and we are a very tough team. When it was that cold, we were like, this is great. It means it is going to be a successful day.”
All the buildup and preparation came down to just a few minutes of insanity as BYU and the other runners took off at the sound of the starter’s gun.
“At regionals, we didn’t get out well,” Wayment said. “Our focus at nationals was to get out because there are 31 teams there. We had gotten out probably 100 meters or so and the only one I could see in front of me was my teammate, Whittni Orton. The field was behind me. We got a really, really good start.”
Taylor described just how wild it was for her as a coach to try to be everywhere and support her girls.
“I think if I was mic-ed up, I don’t think we would be able to play that recording,” Taylor said with a laugh. “Part of that was because there was so much mud that it prevented me from sprinting from one point to another as fast as I wanted to. There were so many people in my way.”
It required some creativity for Taylor to be able to call the instructions and encouragement she wanted to convey to her runners.
“At one point two of the gentlemen wouldn’t move over so I could get in to yell — and I really needed yell because I could see Anna Camp needed to move up,” Taylor said. “I bent down on my knees and I was between this guy’s legs, yelling at Anna. It’s not like that at any other cross country race. You are almost in a desperation mode as a coach and you are just a little bit crazy in that moment.”
On the sidelines, it felt like everything went by in a blur.
“It all happened so fast,” Taylor said. “In that moment, they raced to the best of their ability and you just become a cheerleader as a coach. There is nothing more that you can do. It was so exhilarating in that moment and that is what makes a national championship race so fun.”
On the course, Wayment found herself right where she wanted to be.
“The 1,000 was just mud so we were awkwardly trying to get down the hill,” Wayment said. “It’s insane but you really can feel each other’s vibe. I can feel it when my teammates are around me. Whittni, Erica (Birk-Jarvis) and I finished all together, then we were looking back for the other girls. It was so powerful.”
It was a race to remember for the entire team, with each runner finishing better than they ever had before at nationals. Wayment (20:16.1). Birk-Jarvis (20:16.1) and Orton (20:17.0) came in as a group to finish No. 5, No. 6 and No. 7 respectively, while senior Olivia Hoj (56th overall, 20:59.4) and junior Anna Camp-Bennett (60th overall, 21:01.3) rounded out the Cougar scoring finishers.
So close, yet not first
When the final results were tallied, BYU had the incredible total of 102 points — but Arkansas finished with 96 points to win the national championship by just six points.
“It would be much easier to have gotten second by 15 or 20 points,” Taylor said. “I’m acknowledge that feeling because it is silly for me as a coach to see everything we did and the sacrifices these women made and not acknowledge it. The score that the BYU women put up of 102 points would’ve won the meet in each of the last 22 years. I thought 120 would’ve been amazing. I’ve got to be proud of that. They ran a fantastic race. It’s a life lesson. Sometimes you do everything right and the end result isn’t exactly what you want it to be.”
Wayment said there is a balance between being thrilled with the great finish and wishing they had gotten to the top.
“I’ve had time to think about it and I was thinking that maybe after the race I would feel more bitter than sweet, but every single girl gave everything they had,” Wayment said. “That’s more powerful than those six points were. Our goal at the beginning was to be in the Top 4 and we came away in second place. Not many teams can say that. Second place was an amazing accomplishment.”
The runner-up finish was the best for the Cougars since 2003 but Wayment said she feels the lessons she learned from the memorable season were even more valuable.
“It’s been about gratitude and thankfulness,” Wayment said. “It’s thankfulness for all the girls who have given so much to the program. It’s thankfulness for Coach Taylor for having the dream of being a coach so she could one day empower us and give us these moments. It’s gratitude that BYU has provided us with opportunities that I never thought possible. I’m feel gratitude and thankfulness because these are moments I will never get back. They will always be close to my heart and I’m just grateful.”