It’s more difficult to develop the mind than the body. That was the challenge that BYU’s Anna Camp and her coach, Diljeet Taylor, faced. They could develop Camp’s lungs and legs to withstand the rigors of a 1,500-meter race with weightlifting and repeat sprints and road runs, but how exactly do you train the mind to let the body run to its potential, to have the confidence that it can withstand a fast pace and not only finish the race but be in position to win?
“Do you want me to coach you to win the 1,500-meter national championship?“ Taylor asked Camp earlier this year. “Are you all in to do this? I think you have the capability to do that. Do you believe it?”
Confidence is a big factor in track, as it is in other sports. Runners who lack confidence won’t stick with rivals who are running a hot pace because they don’t believe they can handle the pain and the effort. They drop away in the middle laps. It’s a mental breakthrough when they can resist that urge.
“It took a long time to develop,” says Camp.
About four years, in fact, and then in one magnificent week it all came together for Camp, in the last two races of her collegiate career.
Heading into last week’s NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, she hadn’t won a 1,500-meter race since Oct. 18, 2018. Exactly nobody believed she was a threat to score points at nationals. Track & Field News — self-proclaimed “The Bible of the Sport” — predicted the top 10 finishers of the 1,500, and Camp’s name wasn’t among them. Who could blame the magazine? Camp was no better than ninth at the NCAA West Region and that was only half the field she would face in national championships (the other half was at the East Regional).
And yet Camp says that when she flew to Eugene, Oregon, for nationals, she was convinced she could win the race. “I did know I had a chance to win,” she says. “Coach Taylor has never told me something I couldn’t do or exaggerate what I could do. She’s very honest with us. She’s very realistic.”
In the semifinals of the NCAA meet, Camp produced the day’s second fastest time, 4:09.22, breaking a six-week-old school record set by teammate and best friend Whittni Orton. It seemed to come out of nowhere. Her time was 2 ½ seconds faster than she had ever run in her life.
The best was yet to come. The heavy pre-race favorite was Colorado’s Sage Hurta, the defending national indoor champion. Camp — with her new, emboldening confidence — became Hurta’s shadow once the race began.
“I knew I needed to be within range of Sage to use my kick,” she recalled this week. “I wanted to be in the top two or three (during the race). I had to fight for that. It went out slower than I wanted so we were not spread out much. It was an arm bump here, a leg clip there. I tried to lock in on Sage. I knew she would go on the last lap, and I knew if I was behind her and she went there would be an opening for me to get through. The pace started to pick up at 500 meters (left in the race) and the field spread out a little, but it was at 350 meters (to go) that things really opened up. Sage and the two Stanford girls went.”
At 500 meters, she was running in fifth place on the rail in a tight pack of nine runners — it was still anyone’s race — with Hurta and Stanford’s Christine Aragon running shoulder to shoulder at the front. Hurta moved into the lead as the final lap began. Camp looked boxed in, but approaching 350 meters she accelerated and swung wide and was able to break free to pursue Hurta and Stanford’s Ella Donaghue.
Down the backstretch, she pulled around Donaghue and tucked in behind Hurta and the race was on in earnest. “With 200 meters to go, I thought, ‘I’m OK!, my legs feel good!” she said later. Camp moved to the outside of the lane, just off Hurta’s shoulder on the turn, but she bided her time and wisely decided not to pass her yet. Says Camp, “I told myself, ‘Wait, Anna. Just wait. Wait.’ I didn’t want to make my move before the last 100 because that opens up a chance that they will come back on you. I wanted to be the one to make the last move.”
At the top of the homestretch, Camp smoothly shifted gears to pull even with Hurta, and then with about 90 meters to go she accelerated again and surged into the lead. She opened a five-meter lead and was still pulling away when she crossed the finish line, nearly a second ahead of Hurta, the runner-up.
“There’s so much talent in that field, and I’ve seen too many times in track when someone gets caught from behind,” says Camp. “Right after I passed Sage, I kept thinking, ‘Someone’s coming back on me!’ but then I looked up and saw the big screen (video) and thought, ‘no way; I have this.’”
Her time was 4:08.53, another school record and the second fastest in the nation this season (a little behind Hurta’s 4:08.38) and she had done it at the best of all possible times.
Back in Provo this week, she recalls, “I remember Coach (Taylor) seeing something in me a couple of years ago and saying, ‘Why can’t you see what you can really do? You can be an All-American.’”
Camp’s doubts about her potential might be at least partially tied to her humble, small-town beginnings. She grew up in Fillmore (population 2,500). The fifth of 10 children, she gravitated to sports after watching her siblings compete as prep athletes. She participated in multiple sports — track, cross-country, basketball and soccer. She was the two-time state MVP in soccer, a three-time state cross-country champion and an eight-time state champion on the track in everything from the 400-meter dash to the 3,200-meter run.
But she also was competing for Millard High in the tiny 2A state classification, which means that, with a few exceptions, she lacked the competition that was found in the 5A and 6A classes that would force her to run faster and achieve more of her potential. And because many small-town athletes play multiple sports, unlike athletes at bigger schools, they aren’t developing a specialty year-round, which is widely considered to be a healthy approach to sport but also can hide potential. Camp, for one, didn’t run at all during the winter because she played basketball instead. Her most impressive time was a 2A state record of 56.9 for 400 meters, but her fastest 1,600 was a relatively modest (by college recruiting standards) 5:07.
“Athletes at the 1A and 2A level don’t get as many opportunities to reveal their full talent,” says Camp. “There are a lot of under-utilized athletes in small towns. They get less exposure, their potential is not recognized or developed. There’s something to small towns — the hard work, nothing fancy.”
It takes some foresight by college coaches to see potential at the smaller schools, and Patrick Shane, the BYU women’s coach at the time, saw it in Camp. “It was not my times, it was my range,” says Camp. “He saw me run cross-country and liked that I could run a fast 400 and gut out a cross-country race.”
Camp blossomed at BYU. Her progress has been remarkably methodical and steady. Each year she has run faster — in the 800, she ran 2:08 as a freshman, 2:07 as a sophomore, 2:03 as a junior and 2:02 as a senior; in the 1,500, her progression was 4:23, 4:18, 4:15, 4:08.
Shane recruited a number of small-town Utah girls who went on to have tremendous success after he retired in 2016. He signed three of them late in his career who went on to become stars — Erica Birk, Orton and Camp.
Birk, who came from Coalville (population 1,800), set five school records (not counting relays) indoors and outdoors and collected seven All-American certificates in track and cross-country before graduating in 2019. Orton, who came from Panguitch (population 1,800), and Camp arrived together and became roommates as freshmen. In the last couple of years, Orton has set six individual school records — four indoors, two outdoors — and during her college career she has collected nine All-America certificates between track and cross-country. Camp owns four All-American citations and of course is the newly crowned national champion. She placed 11th in the NCAA Cross-Country Championships last March, helping BYU win the national championship. Like Camp, Orton and Birk were multi-sport prep athletes (Orton competed in four sports and was the 2A state basketball MVP, and Birk was a swimmer).
All three of them were on the BYU roster for the two years before Birk graduated. Says Camp, “We’ve talked about it (being from small towns) in terms of, who would’ve thought? We all came from small towns and wound up running together for BYU.”
She adds, “I have received an outpouring of support from the 2A community in general (since her NCAA victory). Girls I ran against in high school.”
Looking ahead, Camp will return to Eugene — scene of her NCAA victory — this weekend to compete in the U.S. Olympic trials at 1,500 meters. She will return to BYU in the fall to compete in cross-country, which will finish her collegiate eligibility. After that, Camp, who is married, plans to continue her track career as a professional.
Before nationals, she didn’t allow herself to read about the NCAA meet and predictions for the competition; that’s not what she needed for her growing confidence. “It’s funny now to see what other people’s thoughts are,” she says. “I did know I had a chance to win.”