From national champion to Olympic hopeful? BYU’s Courtney Wayment is on her way
In the midst of a record-setting season, Wayment is planning on returning to Provo to compete for the Cougars again next year. But first there is work to be done
This seems an entirely fitting challenge for Wayment. Ever since she took up running, she has had to hurdle every manner of obstacle thrown in her way, from a mysterious illness that had her sucking oxygen from a tank between races, to blackouts and repeated leg injuries, to the COVID-19 shutdown, to the clutches of a possessive club soccer coach. Her talent was such that it was tempting to wonder what she could do if she ever could train and race unfettered by such problems.
Now we know.
Healthy at last, she hit her stride this year and introduced herself to the national track scene. During the college indoor season she produced the fastest times in the nation in the mile and 3,000, and for the first time in her career qualified for the NCAA indoor championships, where she won the 3,000 and anchored BYU’s winning distance medley relay team.
“I feel grateful and blessed,” she says.
She has continued her hot streak outdoors, although she has raced sparingly. On April 30, she entered the steeplechase for the first time in four years. Most distance records are broken by one or two seconds, if not tenths; Wayment broke the BYU school record by more than 11 seconds, with a time of 9:31.37, on a near-midnight romp at the West Coast Relays in Clovis, California.
It’s the fastest time in the nation this year by six seconds. It’s also the fifth fastest time ever by a collegian, behind Emma Colburn, Jenny Barringer (now Simpson), Courtney Frerichs and Colleen Quigley — two are world champions and Olympic medalists, another is a world championships medalist and the American record holder, and the other an Olympic finalist.
Because of a lengthy power outage, the meet was delayed and then resumed after meet officials asked spectators to point their car lights at the track and to hold up their cellphone flashlights. By the time Wayment lined up for the steeplechase, the power was restored, but it was about 11:30 p.m. (12:30 in Utah).
“I’m usually in bed at 9:30 every night,” she says.
Wayment led the race wire to wire, winning by a whopping 17 seconds. She had hoped to break 9:30 — the Olympic standard — but the early pace lagged (including a sluggish 79-second lap). She picked up the pace the last three laps, closing with a 69-second final lap.
“I looked up at the scoreboard (clock) after the final barrier and it was 9:20 and I thought, oh, no, I’m so close,” she says.
That performance was enough to make track observers wonder where she had been the past few years. That’s where things get complicated.
In the blood
Wayment’s father, Mark, who owns an insurance business in Layton, was an All-American steeplechaser at Weber State in 1985 and 1986 and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame. He missed the Olympic Trials in 1984 with a broken foot. Her mother Becky (ne Bjornn) was Weber State’s No. 1 cross-country runner in the ’80s when her training wasn’t interrupted by the births of the couple’s first two children. Anyone who has seen both Rebecca and Courtney run — and this includes Weber State coach Paul Pilkington — inevitably tell her, “You run just like your mom.”
Running was in Courtney’s bloodline. So naturally Courtney became … a soccer player.
She fell hard for the sport. The youngest of the Wayments’ five children, she began playing soccer at 4 and then was “scouted” — her word — for a club team at age 7. For the next 10 years she played the club game, sucked into the world of year-round soccer that leaves little time for much else. Watching her games, Mark noticed she wasn’t the fastest player on the field, until the second half when endurance took over.
“With all the money I spent on soccer, I told her I’d put it in a bank account for her to use after she graduated from high school. But she loved soccer.” — Mark Wayment
All her siblings ran cross-country and track; not Courtney. “I loved soccer,” she says. “I didn’t want anything to do with track.” In a junior high P.E. class, she ran the mile in 5:58 one day in the gym. She called her dad and told him. He was skeptical.
“That probably wasn’t a full mile,” he told her. She called him again a few days later and told him she had run the P.E. mile again, this time in 5:52. Mark was still openly skeptical. The next time she called, she told him she ran the mile in 5:48, which would make her competitive against high school girls. “You’re in the seventh grade; you didn’t run that fast,” he told her.
She began competing in cross-country and track races as a freshman at Northridge High, but her soccer coach wouldn’t allow her to train for them. All she did was show up for races when there was no conflict with soccer games or practices. She placed sixth in the state cross-country championships as a freshman and fifth as a sophomore and covered one mile on the track in 5:07.72.
“She did all that on soccer training,” says Mark. “I tried to bribe her. With all the money I spent on soccer, I told her I’d put it in a bank account for her to use after she graduated from high school. But she loved soccer.”
Chick Hislop, a successful track and cross-country coach at Weber State, saw her race in the state meet as a freshman and afterward told her, “You are one of top four runners in this meet. If you quit soccer and start running you’ll be No. 1.” Meanwhile, she was being pulled the other direction by her high school soccer coach. As Wayment puts it, “He actually told me, when I was 15 years old, that if he caught me practicing for track he would bench me for the state (soccer) tournament.”
One soccer coach told her she was not allowed to compete in the state track championships because the soccer team was preparing for the State Cup tournament, but she did so anyway with the encouragement of her father. She was benched for part of the State Cup. On another occasion, her soccer coach allowed her to compete in a region cross-country competition, but told her she had to return to practice immediately afterward, the same day. She missed the practice because of a sore hip and was benched.
Says Mark, “I asked the coach, ‘Why would you punish her for doing good things? It’s not like she went to the beach or was out drinking?’”
For 21⁄2 years, Wayment followed the coach’s order and didn’t participate in any training sessions for cross-country or track, but then she placed a disappointing 12th at the state cross-country meet the fall of her junior year. “That was when I realized that talent can only take you so far,” she says. Forced to choose sports, she reluctantly quit soccer entirely and transferred to Davis High, a track and cross-country powerhouse (her family sold their house and bought a new place within Davis boundaries to accommodate her running pursuits).
Looking back now, she says, “The team I was on from age 7 to 16, half of them are now on the BYU soccer team,” she says. “I have no regrets. I am a little sad. I did want to play soccer in college, but it just didn’t feel right.”
At Davis, she immediately began training for competition for the first time. Until midway through her junior year, the longest she had ever run in training was two miles, which was a little more than a warmup for her rivals. Now she was doing five-mile runs and speed work on the track. Just four weeks later, she placed sixth in the Nike regional cross-country championships, qualifying her for the national meet two weeks later, where she placed 32nd.
In the fall of her senior year, after months of training under Davis High coach Corbin Talley, she won the state cross-country championships and set a state record, running the first sub-17-minute three-mile race in the history of the event. She accepted a scholarship offer from BYU.
All was going according to plan until she began to falter during the winter indoor track season. As early as February 2016 of her senior year, she felt something was wrong. She was experiencing extreme fatigue and weakness.
“I knew I was really sick,” she says. “I was falling asleep in classes.” Nike arranged to pay all her expenses to compete in a national-class mile race in Arizona in March 2016. She consulted a doctor who discovered that she had low blood oxygen levels, among other symptoms. She was hospitalized briefly a week before the meet, and the doctor advised her not to race in Arizona.
“You don’t have enough oxygen as it is,” he said. She went anyway. She blacked out two laps into the four-lap race and faded to 21st place. She had been favored to win.
“I can’t tell you what happened,” she says. “I remember the first 800 and nothing after that. I finished. I told my dad, ‘I’m not OK.’”
“She had a fever the night before,” says Mark. “I watched her warm up and she looked OK so I let her decide. When she started to fade, her form started to break, then she started to wobble. After the (first) 800 she was delirious, and I ran down to pull her off the track, but I couldn’t get onto the track. I was yelling at her to step off because she was oblivious.
“It was hard to watch as a parent. I was on the backstretch and ran around to the finish and told (meet officials) that I was her coach and just pushed my way onto the track as she was finishing, wobbly and incoherent. She collapsed, and I carried her to the first-aid tent where she recovered enough to walk.”
The illness lingered and she stubbornly continued to run. She breathed from an oxygen tank throughout the night, wearing a nasal cannula (a tube into her nose) that was connected to a large metal tank or a small tank that she could wear in a backpack. Between races, she returned to her bottled oxygen. At the state track championships, she would run a race, then walk to a hotel room and wear the cannula until her next race. Predictably, the lack of oxygen hampered her performances.
At the state meet, she was scheduled to compete in the 1,600 meters (metric mile). As she describes the scene, “I had to sit in a room with Olivia Hoy (her college teammate) and sip oxygen before warming up, then run the race. I led the whole race and then fell apart the last 300 meters. It was too much. After I finished, Olivia said, ‘Let’s go get your oxygen.’ She helped me get to the room. I did that for a couple of hours until the next race. That’s how the outdoor season went.”
She still managed to place third in the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs at the state track championships.
“We don’t know what it was — some type of autoimmune disease,” she says. “My red and white blood cells were attacking themselves and were very depleted. This was the second time this had happened. The first time occurred when I was 8 or 9 and I spent a couple of days in the hospital and had to be on oxygen then, too.”
By June she was better but the bout of illness was the first of many challenges that would dog her for years. She earned All-America notice in both 2018 and 2019 by finishing 23rd and fifth, respectively, in the NCAA Cross-Country Championships, but her spring track seasons were hampered both years by injuries (a tibial stress fracture and a stress reaction in her hip). She lost the entire 2020 season to the pandemic.
Then came the magic months of 2021, with the school-record run in the steeplechase and the two national championships.
“Courtney is the perfect example of someone who continued to show up and give 100%,” says BYU coach Diljeet Taylor. “She has dealt with adversity the right way. … Through all of this, she has remained extremely coachable. That ability to listen, to trust, and to grow on and off the track has molded her into the very best person and athlete she could be. This is just the beginning of her success story.”
Steeplechaser at heart
For years Mark’s framed All-America certificates have hung on the wall of the family home; this spring he framed his daughter’s All-America certificates — there are four of them now — and put them on the family wall of fame. The baton has been passed to the next generation.
“I just adore my dad,” she says. “He’s just the nicest man. We always had a good relationship, but when I ran the steeplechase we shared a passion for something and it bonded us further. I put all my trust in my coach, but if a workout went well my dad is the first person I call.”
She ran three steeplechase races as a freshman, the last one in May 2017 (time: 10:04.43), but because of circumstances she didn’t return to the event until she made her record run in California.
“I have known since I was in high school that I was supposed to be a steelechaser,” she says. Knowledgeable family members and friends who saw her run in high school told her, “You’re going to be a steeplechaser, like your father.”
“When Courtney was about 11 years old, I was watching her just play her heart out in a soccer game. In the middle of the game a voice in my head said, ‘She is a steeplechaser.’ It was so loud and clear I answered, ‘What?’ I have kept that to myself for all of these years, watching and wondering. I just told Courtney about it right before she steepled last week. It finally happened.” — Becky Wayment
Becky says, “When Courtney was about 11 years old, I was watching her just play her heart out in a soccer game. In the middle of the game a voice in my head said, ‘She is a steeplechaser.’ It was so loud and clear I answered, ‘What?’ I have kept that to myself for all of these years, watching and wondering. I just told Courtney about it right before she steepled last week. It finally happened.”
Her next big race will occur Saturday, May 15, in Los Angeles. She and teammate Whittni Orton will compete against a field of professional runners in a 5,000-meter track race.
As for the future beyond that, Wayment, who has been married for four years, plans to compete for BYU again next season, utilizing the NCAA’s offer of a makeup year for athletes who missed last season due to COVID-19. She aspires to make the Olympic team and “to run professionally as long as I can.” Beyond that, she isn’t saying much.
“I don’t love talking about my goals publicly,” she said. “I’ll just say that I’d love to do my best and see how far that takes me.”