PROVO — Last spring Whittni Orton was in the best shape of her life, ranked the highest in her collegiate track career, and convinced she was mentally ready to accomplish something special.
And then, just weeks before the start of the track season, it was all stolen — the opportunities, the challenges, the experiences — by a virus no one had ever heard of before January.
“That was one of the hardest things I’ve dealt with because of how the season was going and what I had to look forward to,” said Orton, a BYU redshirt senior. “It was my year to do some big things. I felt like it was going to be my breakout season, and I wasn’t able to do it. I was very sad.”
The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t just steal the track season for Orton and her teammates, it has also robbed them of the chance to show their second-place finish at last year’s NCAA cross-country championships wasn’t a fluke. This fall’s cross-country season is, for the moment, on hold, as West Coast Conference officials hope to squeeze a season in after the first of the year and before 2021’s track season.
Orton and her teammates understand and acknowledge the heartbreaking realities that COVID-19 has wrought on millions of people — from nearly 200,000 U.S. deaths to thousands of lost businesses and even more personal financial crises. Still, for athletes who’ve sacrificed and worked for years, there is still a sense of loss, even as they try to move on to new realities.
“In a lot of ways, it’s been really hard,” said Orton’s teammate Anna Camp-Bennett. “But I feel like I’ve grown more as a person, and I’ve learned about myself and my commitment levels. ... I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on how much this sport really does mean to me, and how much I really want to reach those big goals.”
Before the pandemic upended so much of their lives, neither runner would likely have considered taking on the unusual challenge their coach proposed several weeks ago. The challenge? Try to break the basketball mile world record. In other words, run a mile while dribbling a basketball, and do it faster than anyone in the world.
High hopes dashed
Orton, who was a part of 29 state championships in four sports at Panguitch High, and Camp-Bennett were actually at an indoor track event when the NCAA shut down all competition.
“We were there, at the track, when they made the announcement that we were not going to compete,” Camp-Bennett said. “It was kind of crazy the way it happened. At the time, we had three cases in the entire state. I understand why they had to do it; there were a lot of tough decisions.”
With the outdoor season just weeks away, Orton prepared for what she hoped would be a career season as she was ranked No. 1 in the 3K, No. 2 in the mile, and No. 4 in the 10K. And that’s No. 1 in the country.
In fall 2019, Orton and her teammates rocked their sport with a second-place finish in the NCAA cross-country national championships. This year, with an infusion of new talent and the return of talent like Orton and Camp-Bennett, expectations for the fall of 2020 were sky high. For their coach who guided them to national prominence, every day was about reveling in the realities of a special team
“These are the women who put us on the map,” said coach Diljeet Taylor, who took over the program five years ago. “They brought the BYU women back to national relevance. These are women I won’t forgot, and I want to cherish these last couple of seasons with them.”
Cherishing her limited time with the women who helped take the program to national relevance became more difficult when pandemic precautions shut down the program in the spring and then postponed the season this fall.
“When I look at what COVID has done, it’s like (the athletes) have suffered two stress fractures back to back,” Taylor said. “It’s harder than anything I’ve gone through as a coach. And if it’s hard for me, it’s got to be even more difficult for the women. So I just try to keep the focus positive, and I am grateful we still get to train and strengthen our culture and our sisterhood.”
Taylor’s goal has always been to motivate and challenge her athletes. For runners, that means testing themselves in races, which is a completely different dynamic than running against a clock like they do in practices.
“I had to get really creative and think of some things they could do to make them feel proud of what they were doing,” Taylor said. “I noticed a gentleman broke the world record for the basketball mile, I think at the beginning of the pandemic. And then a high school girl, I think, set the women’s record at 5:08. You obviously have to have a background in basketball. Just think of the difference in the rhythm of how you run when you’re racing versus going up and down the court.”
She approached Camp-Bennett and Orton.
“Originally, I was like, ‘Oh yeah, we got this,’ ” said Orton, a former point guard who earned all-state and MVP honors. “I’m confident in my dribbling. I can weave through people. That was my thing, dribbling. So I was feeling a little confident.”
Taylor’s suggestion was that Orton and Camp-Bennett, who’d also played varsity prep basketball, attempt the world record at the same time. The rest of the team would cheer them on and train along side them.
“I think at first they were like, ‘What are we doing?’ ” Taylor said laughing. “But it ended up being a really cool memory. It means nothing in the sport of track and field. It means nothing in the sport of basketball. But together, it’s pretty cool.”
Orton said it wasn’t until she started trying to hit her race pace while dribbling that she realized the complexity of the challenge.
“This was so much different,” Orton said. “I was nervous, definitely very nervous. ... I wanted to look at it as a joke, but I had to focus. I thought if I clear my mind like I do with running, I will definitely kick the ball.”
In fact, that was the most challenging aspect of the race.
“That was a struggle,” Orton said. “If you’re going to run your fastest, you need to shut your brain off for at least the first half of the race. But I have to leave it on to dribble. I was just thinking about trying to stay rhythmic.”
Strange year, strange goal
For Camp-Bennett, the unusual challenges sort of felt right in this most unusual year.
“It was kind of funny,” she said of what she thought when Taylor suggested it. “This year has been so weird. It’s been really hard not to race, more than I knew it would be. Even though it was this silly thing, and we were just doing it for fun, I was super excited about it.”
In fact, Camp-Bennett studied the run-dribble technique of the girl who set the record before them — Connecticut high school standout Sydney Masciarelli — who ran it in 5:08.57. She decided to use the same dribble technique of switching hands, while Orton decided to dribble with her dominant hand the entire race.
“Whittni was a point guard, but I was more of a fifth man playing any position,” she said. “When I dribbled with just one hand, I kind of leaned forward, and it cut off my air, made it harder to breath. If I switched hands, it kept me more upright, in my true running form.”
Orton and Camp-Bennett still play one-on-one when they get breaks from what is an essentially year-round training schedule.
“We’re good friends, and we play one-on-one between seasons because we both love basketball,” she said. “It wouldn’t be the smartest to do it during the season.”
Anyone who ever had to defend Orton or Camp-Bennett understands why they keep their hoop challenges outside the running season. But with their strategies in place, and a couple of trial runs, there was nothing left but the attempt, which came on Sept. 4.
The race was an impressive display of focus and skill, as both women impressed with their ability to run faster than most humans while also dribbling. Camp-Bennett laughed at the dribbling saying it wasn’t “good dribbling.”
But the race was challenging, and feeling the butterflies was a welcome experience. Orton led the entire time, and she crossed the finish line in 4:58.56. That converted to 4:52.71 with an altitude adjustment, shattering Masciarelli’s time. Camp-Bennett finished with a time of 5:10.37, which converted to 5:04.28.
“It was actually super hard,” Camp-Bennett said. “It was definitely fun to do it with someone.”
Adds Orton, “I thought it was actually kind of fun. Honestly, I think it’s kind of funny that it’s blown up so much. It’s just something you do because you can. Coronavirus is stopping all the real competing. But I think just seeing the reaction has been fun.”
The new world record holder said that she is finding her way through this unusual time by thinking about what she lost and what she wants to achieve.
“I definitely left competing on a high,” said Orton, a seven-time All-American for BYU and owner of four school records. “I was up in the higher rankings of distance runners, and I want to come back and be at the top. I want to be the best I can when we come back. I didn’t really get to display my fitness, and I’m looking forward to that. It’s good motivation.”
Which is the key, according to their coach, to do more than survive the disappointment of a postponed season. If they want to thrive, they have to find ways to improve every day they lace up.
“The only way to replicate the season is to have a season. So we will test our fitness over the next few months, but it’s not the same. But the women need something to look forward to, something to test their fitness and something to allow them to feel that they’re getting better.” — BYU coach Diljeet Taylor
“The only way to replicate the season is to have a season,” Taylor said. “So we will test our fitness over the next few months, but it’s not the same. But the women need something to look forward to, something to test their fitness and something to allow them to feel that they’re getting better.”
Taylor said her athletes, and those she knows at BYU, are “way tougher than we give them credit for. They’re tougher, more determined, more resilient, and that’s what I’ve learned about my team through all of this.”
She said they have continued to work hard and focus on what they do have and what they can achieve, and that’s made moments like breaking a world record even sweeter.
“They are so special,” Taylor said. “They’re so devoted to their craft. It really inspires me because they work so hard regardless of what is happening. ... I really feel like I owe them my best.”
Like most athletes, they’re learning to let go of what they can’t control and focus on what is within their power.
“The things that are inside our control, I’m going make sure they’re absolutely their best,” Taylor said. “It’s a season they will remember, hopefully for some of the good things and not focusing on what was taken away.”