Just knowing him, his work ethic, and seeing that he was dedicated and always looking to improve, I don’t know, I’ve always just had this vision of me cheering him on at the Olympics. – Erica Ward

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PARK CITY — Jared Ward slipped the USA racing singlet over his lean, teenage body, and as he looked at those letters across his chest, desire became a promise.

“I just narrowly missed qualifying for the U.S. team as a junior,” said the 27-year-old Kaysville native of his experience in 2007. “I finished third, and they took two runners. The (competition) was actually in Rio that year. … I went in and tried on the race kit because I was an alternate.”

He said it was looking at himself in Team USA gear that transformed daydreams into goals.

“That’s when I said, ‘Someday I’m going to get a USA kit that I get to keep,’” he said. “Nine years later, I’m finally getting my kit and I’m going to Rio. It’s so cool.” Ward may have surprised a lot of people when he finished third in February’s Olympic Trials in Los Angeles, earning the third spot on the U.S. Olympic Marathon team.

Ward said he meticulously followed a race plan he and longtime BYU coach and former Olympian Ed Eyestone crafted during training, and that enabled him to have the race he needed at just the right time.

His wife, Erica, said she always knew her husband would be an Olympian, she just didn’t expect it to happen this summer.

“Just knowing him, his work ethic, and seeing that he was dedicated and always looking to improve, I don’t know, I’ve always just had this vision of me cheering him on at the Olympics,” said Erica, who met Jared when the two ran track together at Davis High. “This year, we were not expecting it. If you line up all the racers on that day, Jared doesn’t make the team. That day was very, it was special. He’d worked really hard, and a lot of people who wished they had their perfect day, when they were in perfect shape, didn’t. We’re hoping he will have his best race (in Rio) and we’ll see where it puts him.”

Ward’s journey to Rio has twists and turns that could have taken him in another direction, and at times, away from distance running altogether. Instead, those obstacles became detours, blessings and opportunities, mostly because of the way Ward, his coaches and his family approached them.

Ward has always loved running, but he wasn’t some phenom

“I always loved running,” he said. “I loved the way I could chip away at my own time. But I was the slowest freshman (boy) on my team.”

He loved the way success was incremental.

“It was something I was relatively good at, especially compared to the other things we did in gym class,” he said laughing. “I was better at running, so I liked it more.”

He said his high school coach, Roger Buhrley, a legend in prep circles, was responsible for his improvement.

“I trained hard before my junior year, and I moved onto the varsity team,” he said. “And then it started to take off, and I was more consistent. That’s when I was racing.” His goals changed from focusing only on his time to how to compete with other runners. By his senior year, he was the fastest on his team, and he helped the Darts win state in both cross-country and track in his final year of high school. He was a three-time state champion in 2007 — winning the mile, two-mile and sprint medley events. He finished 22nd at prep cross-country nationals in 2006.

He served an LDS mission to Pittsburgh, after which he married his high school sweetheart, Erica, in 2010 and enrolled in BYU in the fall of 2011. Two things caused problems for him after he began running cross-country in the fall of 2011.

First, he considered quitting the sport altogether.

“I’d been struggling with motivation,” Ward said. “It wasn’t fun to me. … I’d just gotten married, and I loved spending time with my wife. I’m a nerd, and I loved my nerd school (statistics), there were so many things I loved that I thought, ‘Why do I drag myself through running if it’s not fun?’”

Ward had struggled with painful shin splints and stress fractures. He started to wonder if it was worth the pain and agony of training.

Eyestone talked with him, suggesting some ways to find motivation that didn’t include winning races.

“I remember having (a) spiritual experience, praying, and just thinking, ‘I don’t know if I should do this,’” he said. “But I just felt like ‘I’m supposed to do this. I’m supposed to be a runner.’ That helped give me the motivation to find ways to make it fun.”

At about the same time, Ward found out that the NCAA was taking one season of cross-country eligibility from him because he ran a 5K fun run a few weeks after his mission but before he enrolled at BYU. He filed an appeal and, at first, he lost.

“It didn’t really hit me until after my junior year,” Ward said. “That’s when I realized, all my teammates were going to have a senior season, but I was going to have to sit out. But it became a blessing in disguise.”

Eyestone suggested Ward train for and race the Chicago Marathon in lieu of that season. He did so, and said it became the key to unlocking his Olympic dream.

“The trials was only my fourth marathon,” he said. “Chicago taught me a lot of things about marathon running.”

In that experience, Ward had to confront an issue of faith, as well. He doesn’t train or race on Sundays because he’s LDS, but the Chicago Marathon is held on a Sunday.

Ward said he prayed about it and felt very strongly that he should run the marathon.

“I remember thinking at the start line, and then during the race, this is the first time I’m competing on Sunday,” he said. “I got up in the morning and tried to make it as much like a Sunday as possible.” He said how he felt throughout the race confirmed his decision to run.

“I just had this overwhelming feeling of love and support,” he said. “And for me, it was just a confirmation of, ‘Yeah, it’s Sunday, and you’re doing a good thing.’ That’s how I felt. As weird as it sounds, it was OK, and I felt like I was doing the right thing. It was a hard thing to do from a spiritual standpoint.”

After the race, he was in his hotel room recovering when his mother came to his room with some news.

“My mom comes in and said, ‘We found a church,’” he laughs. “’We’re going to church.’ I remember hobbling into church. From a cultural experience it was new, but from a spiritual experience, it feel oddly right.”

Ward’s experience in Chicago helped him as he continued to train with an eye on the trials in Los Angeles in February. While he had a plan, and a dream, he said he thought this year was more about experience and development than accomplishment.

When he finished third, he did so because he stuck to the plan he and Eyestone discussed despite a desire to follow other runners who made moves much earlier in the race. Both Eyestone and Buhrley will be in Rio, as will his parents, but Erica, who is pregnant with their third child, will not travel to Brazil to watch her husband run.

She is trying to decide how she will watch the race, as it’s schedule for the final day of the games on Sunday, Aug. 21. Erica said his success comes from the way his parents raised him.

“I think part of it is just him,” she said. “But part of it is his parents. He was taught to work hard. His dad had a family business, and he would go to work with his dad. He learned a reward system. … He loves to see that reward after a lot of hard work. He doesn’t expect the instantaneous.”

Ward was speaking to a group of runners in Sandy when he was asked if he thought he could win an Olympic medal. He smiled before explaining how he approaches a race.

He doesn’t try to “beat” anyone. Instead, he runs the best race he can, which is based on his training and faith in both the training and his coach’s advice. He said he will simply run the best race he can in Rio, and he believes it’s possible for him to medal if he does that.

He also knows that if others, who’ve posted faster times in past races, have their best races, he may not medal. But it will not diminish his experience.

It will not change how proud he is to wear that USA singlet as he runs 26.2 miles through the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

“When I went to pick up my USA race kit, it was a really cool experience,” he said. “I was thinking, this is big time. But it’s not ‘big time’ compared to what some people do for this country. It’s peanuts compared to what some people do for this country. But if in some small way, I can put USA across my chest and go out there and run hard, be tough and give it my all, I hope in some way, I’m representing my country well.”

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