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Why now was the right time for BYU distance runner Conner Mantz to turn pro

BYU’s two-time national champion made his pro debut a memorable one

BYU distance runner Conner Mantz runs on campus in Provo on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021.
BYU distance runner Conner Mantz runs on campus in Provo on Friday, Feb. 19, 2021. Mantz is turning pro, leaving BYU on a high note of winning the 2021 NCAA cross-county individual title.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Conner Mantz, the two-time NCAA cross-country champion, is passing up his senior year of track to compete professionally and will soon sign a lucrative four-year deal with Nike. He already has made his presence felt on the professional scene.

Two weeks after winning the collegiate cross-country title, he won the U.S. Half-Marathon Championships in South Carolina, running the seventh fastest time ever by an American (60 minutes, 50 seconds).

For Mantz, the decision to return for another season of college cross-country competition, rather than sign a contract last summer, has paid off. Shoe contracts are the lifeblood of professional runners. Most of those companies had spent their budgets by the time the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials were finished last summer and most of the money was committed to those who would appear in the highly visible Tokyo Games.

Conner failed to make the Olympic team — he was the top collegiate finisher (sixth place) in the 10,000 — so he missed out on a big payday. He received offers, but for less money. Mantz changed his plans, returned to college competition and won his second NCAA title.

“My agent said if I had taken an offer in the summer I would have gotten half of what I am getting now,” said Mantz.

“It gave him one more fall to shine, and during the course of the season he showed he was worthy of a multiyear contract,” said BYU coach Ed Eyestone.

All three of BYU’s 2021 national champion runners followed the same plan. Whittni Orton, the 2021 NCAA cross-country champion, and Anna Camp, the 2021 NCAA 1,500-meter champion, are also negotiating professional contracts. Like Mantz, they returned for one more season of cross-country and then turned professional.

In her first post-collegiate race, Orton finished a close second in a fast indoor 5,000-meter race in Boston with a time that qualifies her for this summer’s World Track and Field Championships. The race was won by Annie Rodenfels in 15:08.80, with Orton next in 15:09.47 — a time that would have crushed the collegiate record of 15:12.91 if she had not used up her NCAA eligibility.

Courtney Wayment, a BYU senior, finished third with a time of 15:15.46, the eighth fastest indoor 5K ever by a collegian and well under Orton’s school record of 15:22.98 set in 2019.

Meanwhile, the finer details of Mantz’s contract are being worked out but are expected to be completed early next month. After receiving interest from several shoe companies, Mantz and his agent, Ray Flynn, chose two finalists: Adidas and Nike. Mantz asked Eyestone to advise him in negotiations. Eyestone was a four-time NCAA champion at BYU and a two-time Olympic marathoner who built one of the most successful and enduring road-racing careers ever, competing into his late 30s.

“(Eyestone) had the career I would like to have,” said Mantz. “That’s the goal. And he’s one of the most respected coaches in the world. It was nice having him there with me in negotiations. He has sway when he talks. He helped me answer the hard questions and think of things I didn’t think to ask.”

Mantz, who plans to complete his degree in mechanical engineering at BYU next semester, will continue to train with Eyestone in Provo through the summer with the goal of making the U.S. team for the world track championships this summer. Usually once runners sign with a shoe company they train with that company’s coach and team, especially as it relates to Nike and its highly successful Bowerman team. But given Eyestone’s coaching chops and Mantz’s school commitments, Nike was comfortable allowing them to continue to work together.

“They encourage athletes at most schools to come up and train with their (Bowerman) team, but they don’t think BYU runners necessarily have to do that, which is a nice compliment,” said Eyestone. “I’ll be talking a lot of training with (Bowerman coach) Jerry Schumacher. And when the Bowerman team trains in Park City this summer, we’ll send Mantz up there.

“It’s just smart to share the load, and it would ease the transition for Conner. We have the option that he can go with the Bowerman group eventually. I would not necessarily discourage him from doing that because it would give him the opportunity to train with great athletes.”

Mantz, who turned 25 this month, will train for the upcoming indoor and outdoor track season, as well as a few road races, hoping it prepares him to place among the top three in the 10,000 at the U.S. track championships. That would qualify him to represent the U.S. in the world track championships, which will be held in mid-July in Eugene, Oregon, Nike’s headquarters. He plans to try a marathon in the fall with the long-term goal of making the U.S. Olympic team at that distance in 2024.

“The plan is to train with coach Eyestone through the world championships and after that I’m not sure,” said Mantz. “I do want to try training with the Bowerman group. I have a lot to gain from training with athletes who are better than me.”

Two members of the Bowerman team — Grant Fisher and Woody Kincaid — made the U.S. Olympic team.

“The (contract) gives me opportunities and flexibility,” he said. “I can choose races. I can make a living. I can start a career earlier. Running will be my full-time job.”