Emily Venters, who owns the nation’s fastest collegiate time in the 10,000-meter run this season, has followed a long, arduous road to get to this point. She’s seen it all. Cancer. A long string of injuries. The pandemic. Homesickness. Stops at three universities. Mental and physical burnout. A two-year period in which she didn’t run and almost quit the sport.

Now she’s back on the track in a big way. Three weeks ago, Venters — the University of Utah senior from Lawrence, Kansas, with stops at Boise State and the University of Colorado — covered 10,000 meters in 31:48.35 at the Stanford Invitational. That put her 15 seconds ahead of runner-up Everlyn Kemboi of Utah Valley University, 7 ½ seconds faster than any other collegian in the nation and more than one minute faster than the Utah school record. She did it the hard way by running negative splits — track jargon for running the second half of the race faster than the first half.

This alone would be cause for celebration at Utah, whose track program is much overshadowed by rival BYU’s top-20 program and hasn’t had a national presence until recently, but there’s more. Venters’ teammate, Simone Plourde, a senior from Montreal who transferred from BYU, also has made her mark on the national collegiate track scene this year.

Last month, Plourde produced the second-fastest collegiate 5,000-meter time in the nation, 15:21.19, good for second place in the Bryan Clay (California) Invitational behind Kemboi (15:20.67). It also broke the Utah school record by 19 seconds. Then last weekend, Plourde finished second (first among collegians) in the 1,500-meter run at the Drake Relays with a time of 4:10.04, the fourth fastest in the nation this year. It also broke the Utah school record of 4:13.53 set by Sarah Feeny in 2019.

Plourde, a converted skier and soccer player, took up running only five years ago.

Plourde and Venters hinted at what was to come during the NCAA indoor championships, when Plourde finished fourth in the 3,000 and Venters fifth in the 5,000 — the two highest finishes ever by Utah athletes in that meet.

“I didn’t expect it to happen this fast,” says Plourde. “I thought in the long run it was coming.”

“I guess I’m a little surprised by the 10K result at Stanford,” says Venters.

Venters had planned to run the 5,000 in that meet, but the night before the race she told Utah coach Kyle Kepler that she wanted to run the 10,000 instead.

“Going into the race I was super calm,” she says. “I didn’t have a lot of expectations. I had no time goal.” She covered the first 5,000 meters in 16:06 — “I felt really good. It was easy for me,” she says. Venters pulled off the gloves she was wearing, threw them on the infield, and picked up the pace. She clocked 15:52 the second half of the race, dropping her personal record by 20 seconds.

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“She did it smoothly,” says Kepler. “She stayed within herself and ran away from the field. When she was done she really didn’t look like she had run that fast; she didn’t look like she was all that spent. She was dumbfounded that she had run that fast.”

Two weeks later, Plourde gave the Utes one of the more prominent distance duos in the collegiate ranks by finishing second in the 5,000-meter run at the Bryan Clay Invitational in Azusa, California, a half-second behind Kemoi. She had been a middle-distance runner since taking up the sport in 2017 — she ran a fine 4:14.24 for 1,500 meters earlier in the season in the Stanford Invitational — but has been moving up in distance this year.

“Her mindset has changed,” says Kepler. “She has started to grow from an aerobic standpoint. 

I knew after the indoor season she needed to try (longer races) and so did she.” 

Venters was a high school star in Lawrence, Kansas — she was the state’s Gatorade Runner of the Year in 2013 — which was all the more remarkable given her early history. She was diagnosed with leukemia when she was 3 years old.

“I don’t remember much about it,” she says. “It was really hard on my parents. For two years I was in and out of the hospital. A couple of times they life-flighted me to the hospital in the middle of the night.”

She continues to be monitored. Every two years she undergoes tests to ensure the disease is at bay.

“With everything I do now, I’m just grateful to be here,” she says.

She won five Kansas high school state championships and accepted a scholarship to Boise State. Her collegiate career got off to a strong start in cross-country and track, and she represented the U.S. at the world under-20 track championships (ninth in the 5,000).

But, homesick and wanting to be closer to her parents, she transferred to Colorado, where she was beset with stress reaction injuries. For two years she was unable to run and never ran a race for Colorado. Instead, she biked, swam, lifted weights and ran on a zero-gravity treadmill.

“I couldn’t run on the ground without getting stress reactions (precursors to stress fractures),” she says. 

Utah’s Emily Venters and Simone Plourde compete in a meet at the University of Washington. | University of Utah Athletics

After completing her degree at Colorado, Venters planned to quit running.

“The experience at Colorado made me hate running a lot,” she says. “I thought my life would be better off without it. It was bringing me pain and sadness. … But something inside me said I should keep going.”

In 2021, she transferred to Utah, where she has thrived.

“I’m grateful to be healthy and running,” she says. “I never pictured that I’d be here.”

She plans to turn pro at the end of the school year and eventually try the marathon. After the college season she will race in the U.S. national championships.

“I set big goals for myself,” she says. “I don’t like to say them out loud.”

Kepler hopes she continues to live and train in Utah as a pro. “I think we’ve found something here,” he says. “I hope she stays.”

Like her teammate, Plourde also struggled to find the right fit in college. She originally accepted an invitation to run for BYU and coach Diljeet Taylor, whose success with middle-distance runners is almost unrivaled in collegiate running circles. But Plourde stayed there only one season before transferring to Utah.

“In the most simple terms, I’m not a Mormon and coming from Montreal as an atheist it was hard to fit in, although the coaching and the girls were great. I was really naive. I was unaware of a lot of things. I didn’t even know what Mormons were.”

She was an alpine ski racer and soccer player when she began running occasional mountain races a few years ago. A family friend with a track background encouraged her to try the sport.

“I think you could be good,” she told Plourde. “Give it a shot.” At 17, Plourde began to compete in the Canadian club system. She immediately found herself on the podium after her races and continued to develop. She was 19 when she attracted the attention of Taylor and she signed with BYU.

“It’s one of the best track programs in the U.S.,” says Plourde. “I just didn’t know what I was getting myself into.”

She performed well at BYU, setting personal records in the indoor 800 (2:07.61) and mile (4:37.24) and the outdoor 1,500 (4:16.06), and she qualified for the NCAA West Regionals. Plourde also placed third in the 2019 Canadian U20 championships at 1,500 meters. But after a year in Provo she transferred in 2021 to Utah, where she has continued her ascent in the sport. She placed sixth in the 1,500 at the Canadian national championships last summer.

“I want to enjoy the last meets of the season and see where they take me,” says Plourde, who plans to compete in the Pac-12 championships, NCAA regionals, the NCAA championships and the Canadian championships. “My goal is to represent my country on the national team.”

Venters and Plourde took circuitous routes to arrive at Utah, but it’s paying off. “They’re having fantastic years,” says Kepler. 

Utah runners Emily Venters, left, and Simone Plourde pose for photos at the University of Utah track in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, April 25, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News