A 4.0 in biomedical engineering? One of Utah’s 107 graduating student-athletes was perfect, smart and fast
Australian Cara Woolnough placed seventh in the Pac-12 cross-country meet last fall, broke the school record in the 5K this spring, and also got straight A’s in a very rigorous major
Numbers mean a lot to University of Utah distance runner Cara Woolnough, and not just on the track, where the recently graduated senior broke the school record in the 5,000 meters last month. Her time of 15 minutes, 40.52 seconds wrested the record from her former teammate, Ogden’s Sarah Feeny, whom Woolnough idolized when she came to the United States in 2017.
Math and science have always been among Woolnough’s favorite subjects, and she parlayed those loves into a biomedical engineering degree, all while shining on the track and cross-country trails for the U.
Obviously, numbers are a huge deal in engineering.
“Honestly, I don’t go into every class saying like I need to get an A. I definitely didn’t go into this college experience saying that I wanted to graduate with all A’s. It just kind of happened. You can surprise yourself if you just do your best and don’t be afraid of failing, I suppose.” — Utah distance runner Cara Woolnough
But there’s one set of digits that Woolnough doesn’t like talking about as much. In fact, she’s a “bit embarrassed,” she said recently, when her grade point average was brought up in an interview with the Deseret News.
Woolnough (pronounced: wool-NOH) earned a 4.0, never getting anything less than an ‘A’ in five years at Utah. In one of the most difficult degrees in the catalog, the woman from Down Under graduated at the top of her class — summa cum laude.
Longtime Utah track and field observers say it is simply remarkable — to everyone except Woolnough, who is from Brisbane, Australia. She might not be the smartest, or the fastest, of the 107 current or former Utah student-athletes from 20 sports who received their degrees last week, but is undoubtedly at the top when both are considered — perhaps in the entire country.
Naturally, she takes it all in stride.
“Honestly, I don’t go into every class saying like I need to get an A. I definitely didn’t go into this college experience saying that I wanted to graduate with all A’s,” she said. “It just kind of happened. You can surprise yourself if you just do your best and don’t be afraid of failing, I suppose.”
Woolnough said she was far from perfect in the classroom, but there are undoubtedly some U. professors who would beg to differ. Actually, she wasn’t always in the classroom. Woolnough opted out of the 2020-21 cross-country and track seasons because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and returned home to Australia for more than a year.
That meant waking up in the middle of the night to participate in lectures online, because Melbourne is 14 hours ahead of Utah.
“It was pretty brutal, honestly. Engineering professors, they make accommodations for you, but it is just a brutal degree in and of itself,” she said. “It was a lot of early morning wake-ups, and my days just turned into waking up really early and then training midday, and then just falling straight to sleep for an early nap. It was a weird way to live, but I did it.”
A lot of lectures began at 2 a.m. for her, “and I would be lucky if I got a 5 a.m. one, or a 6 a.m. one,” she said.
Then it got more difficult. Woolnough said last fall’s semester was crazy hard, because she had a biosystems engineering class that really taxed her as she competed in cross-country. Unlike most other student-athletes, distance runners don’t get a semester off from competition because they compete in both cross-country in the fall, indoor track in the winter and outdoor track in the spring.
“That was one of the most challenging classes ever,” she said. “Everyone in the major knew it. It was definitely like nothing I had ever done, almost like a foreign language when you look at the language in some of the assignments.”
Naturally, she aced it.
Woolnough said her typical day last fall involved getting up before 6 a.m. to study, training at 7 a.m., classes from 10 a.m. on, then weightlifting in the afternoon, and more studying at night. Day after day.
“In this major, it is so much work, and you never feel like you are prepared for any exam, or an assignment,” she said. “But yeah, I remember feeling like every second I have to be doing something, to get it done. I am grateful this last semester I have had a little bit of a lighter load. It is crazy how much different you see the whole university experience and you can just breathe a little bit.”
Woolnough said it is popular for Australian students who are showing athletic promise in high school to look for opportunities to play in the U.S. She visited Ole Miss, Portland and Utah with her father, Chris, before deciding to become a Ute.
“Honestly this university has been perfect for me, in that it is has a really great academic program, and athletics is so well-supported,” she said. “The place is just so different than anywhere I had ever been, and it just seemed like a great opportunity to do something different.”
Woolnough was seventh at the Pac-12 cross-country meet last fall, helping the Utes to a second-place team finish. But she said the highlight of her career — pending more milestones at the Pac-12 Championships at Oregon’s Hayward Field this weekend — is breaking that school record in the 5K.
“Sarah (Feeny) was my idol in my early days of being here,” Woolnough said. “I looked up to her so much as a runner and a person in general, so yeah, to think that I am running at the same level as she was is just incredible in my mind.”
So what’s next?
Woolnough plans to return to her native Australia, where her boyfriend and family reside, and get a job in the corporate world, perhaps in marketing “or something where you are interfacing with clinicians and engineers and you have more of a role in bringing together a product and making sure it is satisfying all their needs, rather than making it itself,” she said.
Whatever the case, assume she will do it quickly.
A sport-by-sport look at the 107 Utah student-athletes who graduated, and their majors:
Jonny Barditch, economics
Matt Richardson, health and kinesiology
Dusty Schramm, health and kinesiology
David Watson, health and kinesiology
Riley Battin, business administration
Lahat Thioune, international studies
Dru Gylten, kinesiology
Brynna Maxwell, communication
Zuzanna Pac, civil engineering
Andrea Torres, sociology and psychology
Emma Earl, accounting
Kennedy Powell, biomedical engineering
Sophie Ryan, English teaching
Cara Woolnough, biomedical engineering
Keaton Bills, family, community and human development
Jaylen Dixon, criminology, sociology
Solomon Enis, business administration
Cole Fotheringham, business administration
R.J. Hubert, communication
Brant Kuithe, communication
Semisi Lauaki, criminology
Joe Ludwig, history
Andrew Mata’Afa, criminology
Malone Mataele, sociology
Jeremy Mercier, sociology
Pierre Moudourou, sociology
Nephi Sewell, international studies
Mika Tafua, health, society and policy
Maxs Tupai, family, community and human development, economics
Thomas Yassmin, mathematics, quantitative analysis of markets and organizations
Axel Einarsson, finance
Tristan Mandur, family, community and human development
Oscar Mayfield, communication
Sam Tidd, family, community and human development
Blake Tomlinson, family, community and human development
Alexia Burch, kinesiology
Hunter Dula, kinesiology
Cammy Hall, criminology, international studies
Emilie LeBlanc, heath and kinesiology
Adrienne Randall, criminology
Sydney Soloski, finance, marketing
Samuel Cambere, criminology
Zion Dechesere, health, society and policy
Zach Johnson, finance (master’s)
Rylan Lemons, finance
Ryan Smith, communication
Donny Stock, finance
Casey Wasserman, finance (master’s)
Tomas Birkner, business administration
Joachim Lien, finance
Karianne Moe, mechanical engineering
Sona Moravcikova, biology
Julia Richter, environmental and sustainability studies, international studies
Bjorn Riksaasen, information systems
Katie Vesterstein, finance
Makayla Christensen, criminology
Anna Escobedo, health and kinesiology
Haley Farrar, psychology
Jessica Hixson, elementary education; family, community and human development
Eden Jacobsen, communication
Brooklyn James, communication
Hanna Olsen, environmental and sustainability studies
Brianna Pearson, communication
Ali Schinko, business administration
Ellessa Bonstrom, information systems
Haley Denning, health promotion and education
Elicia Espinosa, health and kinesiology
Jordyn Gasper, history
Sydney Sandez, family, community and human development
Shi Smith, education leadership and policy (master’s)
Men’s swimming and diving
Andrew Britton, business administration
Santiago Contreras, marketing
David Fridlander, computer science
Ben Waterman, economics, political science
Women’s swimming and diving
Leyre Casarin, communication
McKenna Gassaway, family, community and human development
Mandy Gebhart, kinesiology
Emma Lawless, kinesiology
Sophia Morici, nursing
Zofia Niemczak, health and kinesiology
Charity Pittard, health and kinesiology
Emma Ruchala, kinesiology
Marah Smith, kinesiology
Francisco Bastian, international studies
Bruna Caula, economics
Mathias Gavelin, business administration
Emily Dush, communication
Lindsay Hung, marketing
Anya Lamoreaux, health, society and policy
Madeline Lamoreaux, health, society and policy
Track and field
Lauren O’Banion, finance
Taylor Watson, family, community and human development, sociology
Kennedi Evans, business administration
Phoebe Grace, psychology
Stef Jankiewicz, psychology
Madelyn Robinson, heath and kinesiology
Sage Patchell, English