SALT LAKE CITY — There was one moment during Whittni Orton’s freshman year at BYU that her coach had an epiphany about her young athlete. Orton had just completed an indoor mile race at Iowa State and finished behind three older teammates, but her time of 4 minutes, 41 seconds was a full 20 seconds faster than her best time. This was reason to celebrate, but Orton wasn’t having it.
“I was so elated and she was super disappointed and unhappy about it,” says Diljeet Taylor. “That is a good time for a freshman and especially for one who hadn’t broken 5 minutes in high school. But she was so unhappy because she wanted to win. She wasn’t going to settle for anything but being the best. I remember vividly that day going back to the hotel and thinking Whittni Orton is going to be special.”
Jump ahead to the 2020 indoor collegiate season. Orton, after battling injuries for three years, was on a roll and fulfilling her coach’s expectations for her. She set four school records while posting some of the fastest times in the nation.
• On Dec. 7, 2019, she finished fourth in a 5,000-meter race at Boston University with a time of 15:22.98, breaking the school record by a whopping 29 seconds. The time still stands as the fourth fastest in the country. It is the only race in which she has lost to collegiate runners this season.
• On Jan. 25, she finished second to a professional runner in the Dr. Sander Columbia Challenge in New York City. Her time of 4:29.76 broke the BYU school record by almost six seconds and ranks as the second fastest time in the nation. Only Colorado senior Dani Jones has run faster.
• On Jan. 31, she teamed with Lauren Barnes, Elena Ellsworth and Anna Bennett to win the distance medley relay at the Washington Invitational, setting a school record of 10:53.95 and posting the fastest time in the nation.
• On Feb. 14, she finished second in the 3,000-meter run to a professional runner in the Husky Classic in Seattle with a time of 8:49.63, which broke another school record, this one by 11 seconds. It is the fastest time in the nation by four seconds.
“She’s ranked in three individual events,” says Taylor. “That’s pretty rare. It shows great range.”
Orton would have been among the favorites in the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships this week had the races not been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
It was difficult to know exactly what BYU had when former coach Pat Shane recruited Orton to BYU. She won 16 high school state championships — four titles every year, in cross country and in the 800, 1,600 and 3,200 on the track — but her times were not Division I quality and she competed against weak competition. Running for tiny Panguitch (population: 1,668) High, she competed in the 1A division, the lowest level in high school competition. Panguitch is a Paiute Indian word meaning “big fish,” and Orton was a big fish in a small pond.
The fifth of six children, she reveled in competition in whatever form it presented itself. “I’ve always been competitive,” she recalls. “Whatever I was doing, I was trying to win.” Her freshman P.E. class was required to run a mile and a half; Orton beat everyone, girls and boys. Coaches urged her to join the cross country and track teams. “I didn’t enjoy it,” she says. “It was really hard.”
Like many prep athletes in smaller towns, Orton didn’t specialize; she was a three-sport athlete. She earned all-state honors in volleyball, basketball and track, and was voted the state’s 1A Most Valuable Athlete in basketball and track. Basketball was her favorite sport, but she could see that her best hope for success at the collegiate level was track.
At BYU, she might have experienced more early success if not for a series of injuries. Every time she neared peak condition, she broke down — four different stress reactions in her bones (defined as precursors to stress fractures in which the bone is in the process of breaking down).
There was one in her left foot. Then one in her right foot. Then one in her left tibia. Then one in her right femur. Each required her to quit running for six to eight weeks. She was confined to swimming, jogging in a pool and training on stationary bicycles and elliptical machines. It was a way to maintain some level of fitness, but not specific enough to keep her sharp.
Yet somehow she managed to qualify for the NCAA championships as a freshman, sophomore and junior. Her best finish was seventh place. She qualified for the finals of the 1,500-meter run at the 2019 NCAA Outdoor Championships and was running with the leaders on the gun lap, but faded to eighth on the homestretch.
She’s been able to train without interruption since then and has blossomed. In the fall she placed seventh in the NCAA Cross Country Championships as the Cougars finished second in the team competition.
“She has a good (training) base from the cross-country season,” says Taylor. “She gained a lot of strength and confidence from that. I knew after the cross-country season she was set up to have a strong (track) season. She’s been running phenomenally. She’s a perfect example of staying committed to dreams while going through dark times (injuries).”
“I’ve been really blessed,” Orton says. “I’ve been able to train hard. I also have put a bigger emphasis on the spiritual aspect of my life. I want to include that. I’ve been making it a priority. I think I’ve been blessed.”