Head coach Diljeet Taylor and the BYU women’s cross-country and track team have been out for gold.
Gold in the form of medals was a theme of the 2021 winter season, which included cross country and indoor track in the same two-month span and both NCAA championships within five days of each other amid COVID adjustments. To kick off this busy season, Taylor set the tone for victory before the first cross-country meet of the year, the Silver State Collegiate Challenge in Las Vegas, Nevada.
As senior Anna Camp-Bennett recalled, Taylor told the runners they were no longer considered underdogs after finishing second at the 2019 NCAA Cross-Country Championships (the last running championship prior to the COVID-19 outbreak). Since her 2016 arrival in Provo, Utah, Taylor has led a resurgence of the women’s program at BYU, coaching 17 All Americans in cross country and track while earning five top-11 team finishes at the NCAA Cross-Country Championships. In the team’s return to competition, Taylor wanted them to compete like they were the favorites.
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On February 1, the Cougars won the team race over Boise State, and Camp-Bennett finished second overall. Three weeks later, BYU finished first again at the West Coast Conference Championships in Las Vegas.
By the time the team arrived in Stillwater, Oklahoma, for the NCAA Cross-Country Championships on March 15, gold was still very much on their minds. The night before the race, Taylor gave each runner a packet with their bib number, an individual letter written by her, blue and white hair ribbons, and gold-wrapped chocolate coins. “In the meeting, [Taylor] said, ‘We’ve been holding on to the gold this season, but this is the big dance and nobody has the gold anymore, rankings mean nothing, but now it’s time to dig up as much gold as you can,” Camp-Bennett said.
After the meeting, the runner said her coach sent her one last text before she went to bed. It read, “I believe in you.”
Camp-Bennett and the rest of the BYU athletes are used to receiving texts like these from Taylor, who will send messages at random times throughout the season, reminding them of their potential. For Camp-Bennett, her goals included a top 10 finish at the NCAA meet, which would be a major improvement from her 167th finish in 2018 and 60th-place finish in 2019. But Taylor knew she was capable of such a jump.
“I was more nervous for this race than I’ve ever been for anything….The only thing I could say back was, ‘I trust you,’” Camp-Bennett said. “If [Taylor] believes in me, I know I can do it even if I’m not necessarily believing in myself at that moment.”
The next morning, Camp-Bennett finished 11th overall and led BYU to gold at the NCAA Cross-Country Championships, winning by a landslide with 96 points over runner-up North Carolina State’s 161 points. The program’s first NCAA cross-country championship since 2003 and fifth team title overall completed a standout weekend that included more gold in the distance medley relay and 3,000 meters and a seventh-place team finish at the NCAA Indoor Track Championships in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Friday and Saturday, March 12-13.
These moments are just a few examples of tools Taylor uses to motivate her athletes—building the runners’ confidence so they can give their best effort as teammates in the BYU sisterhood in and outside of running at every opportunity—including an unprecedented double championship weekend during a pandemic.
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Viewing change with a gratitude lens
Instead of stressing about the logistical challenges of two championships in such a short window because of NCAA fall championship postponements, Taylor saw the new schedule as a thrilling opportunity for her squad.
“I probably had a different reaction than many of the coaches in the NCAA because I really had a gratitude lens on,” Taylor said. “Our athletes got zero NCAA championships in 2020, so the fact that we were getting two in March of 2021 was exciting for me.”
Taylor used the same lens when navigating the COVID shutdowns with her athletes, encouraging them to “win the wait” until they could resume competition and in-person practice. Instead of focusing on what they lost as a result of the pandemic, she wanted the team to hone in on what they could control, including virtual team connection through regular Zoom meetings and TikTok challenges, ways to improve training through mileage, mental health tools, and nutrition, and serving others, especially on the tough days.
She encouraged them on an individual basis with regular one-on-one calls and hand-written notes telling them how much she believed in them and their big goals.
She also made a point to have the athletes show their gratitude for the people in their life who help them on a regular basis. For example, at the team’s cross-country camp in the fall, Taylor asked the runners to write notes, call, or send a text to someone they’re grateful for.
“[Taylor] does a really good job of building us as people as well as runners....I think there's another level of confidence you can get as you’re becoming a great runner, you’re also becoming a great person and that you can continue those things forever,” Camp-Bennett said.
In the fall of 2020, Taylor got to work on planning the combined seasons for her team, which included several runners with remaining eligibility that could focus on specific event areas. Instead of creating a hybrid training program that would prepare the runners to compete in cross country and track at the same time, she decided to split the team into two groups that played to her athletes’ strengths—middle-distance runners focused on indoor track and the distance specialists competed in cross country.
In January, Taylor told them which team they were on. “Everything was separate, even the weight room times. It was completely two different seasons with two different teams, and that for me was a good move because it allowed me to give my best to both seasons as a coach,” Taylor said.
Taylor encouraged the athletes to support one another in new ways throughout the season. They maintained that “sisterhood” by being happy for each other in their respective endeavors. They decorated their teammates’ lockers, wrote cards to one another, and gave out thoughtful gifts ahead of big races, just as Taylor does for them.
“[The support] just propelled us all forward,” Taylor said. “We all rose together.”
On Thursday, March 11, Taylor brought the track runners in for their last team meeting before their first NCAA championship in a year and a half. To kick off the big double championship weekend, Taylor showed them a video she edited herself with the goal of inspiring her women.
Following the narration from Nike’s “Dream Crazier” commercial, the clip showed film from the BYU runners’ best performances on the track this season, including the mile race at the Husky Classic in Seattle, Washington, where five Cougars ran under 4:38 in February. The video ended with the text, “It’s only crazy until you do it.”
“It was time to show everyone,” senior Courtney Wayment said about watching the video. “We were doing crazy things, but we were reaching our potential. It all built up to this moment. We had an opportunity to do something great.”
On Friday, March 12, BYU won the distance medley relay in 10:52.96, almost five seconds faster than runner-up Arkansas. With help from Wayment, who ran the 1600-meter anchor leg in 4:32, the Cougars earned the program’s first national title in the event and broke the school record. The following day, Wayment won the 3,000-meter title in 9:01.47, and BYU finished seventh as a team with five All-Americans across the middle-distance events.
Leaning into tough conversations that foster growth
With every hard training cycle, runners often face a spectrum of physical and mental challenges, and the 2020-21 season was no exception for senior Whittni Orton, who finished 7th at the 2019 NCAA Cross-Country Championships. In December, she suffered from a foot injury, and after she recovered, the returning All American only had 30 days to run prior to this year’s championship. “I wasn’t at my normal confidence level,” Orton said. “It was hard to get my mind there.”
Eight days before the meet, Coach Taylor said she had a constructive conversation in which she encouraged Orton to focus on running for her team rather than herself. “Most of my women fought their demons in the race,” Taylor said. “Whittni had to fight them before the race, and some of that was me being empathetic, but some of that was me being really hard and really real with her, and getting her to understand that you're not going to be at your best, but you can still give your best.”
On the day of the race, Orton competed with confidence up front from the gun, leading the top group of runners until there were 800 meters remaining in the race. Oftentimes when competitors fade in the last half mile of the NCAA meet, dozens of runners will pass them in a final push toward the finish line. But Orton held onto her All American position despite feeling completely exhausted. She finished 17th overall as the third runner across the line for BYU. “I had to do what I could with what I had,” Orton said. “I’m happy that I could go out and be fearless.”
Looking back on Orton’s performance and the shift in mindset she had to make so close to the race, Taylor said she couldn’t be more proud of her athlete. “[Orton’s] heart and her mind carried her because she knew she had to do it for the team, and I think she finally learned what it's like to run for something bigger than yourself, and I will always remember that,” Taylor said.
Embracing vulnerability and celebrating the moment
The Thursday after the NCAA championship weekend, Taylor called the entire team in for a meeting focused on vulnerability. She said she started the conversation by being transparent about the challenges she faced this season as a coach.
“I think my women sometimes look at me and they're like, she is so confident and so sure of herself, but they don’t really see that there are behind the scene moments where I’m also freaking out, [wondering] did I do everything right? Have I done everything to prepare them?” she said. “You question yourself. That is a very normal, human nature thing to do. It doesn't mean if I question myself, I'm doubting my abilities as a coach. It just means that that’s a normal process—athletes do it, coaches do it—so I was vulnerable with them.”
After she shared her experience, Taylor asked her indoor track team, cross-country team, and the athletes who didn’t make the travel squad to stand up and do the same exercise with the hope that each runner—no matter their contribution to the team this season—would feel supported by one another. “It was emotional,” Taylor said. “They were in tears of how proud they were, and it was so powerful.
“Every single one of those women won it for our team, and that is why this [NCAA win] is special,” Taylor said. “I love that my first [title] was this one with these women. They’re the reason why so many others like them will continue to be believed in because they showed me if you just believe in me, look what I can do, and that’s what I did. I believed in them.”
The team also celebrated their victories together in a unique way. A week after the championships concluded, Taylor hosted a party at her house, which followed the theme of the team’s winning season: gold. While enjoying catered Indian food, the runners wore gold dresses with gold nail polish and received gold-painted roses when they arrived. Taylor, who is of Indian descent, even let her athletes borrow Indian head jewels from her jewelry collection.
For Taylor, it was all in an effort to savor the moment and show her gratitude for the runners who gave their best effort as runners and as people.
“That’s how I wanted to celebrate and remember the win, and that’s how I want them to celebrate and remember the wins,” Taylor said. “I’m sharing a little bit of my culture and making it something that they would never get at any other program.”
Taylor Dutch is a writer and editor living in Austin, Texas, and a former NCAA track athlete who specializes in fitness, wellness, and endurance sports coverage. Her work has appeared in Runner’s World, SELF, Bicycling, Outside, and Podium Runner.