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For BYU women’s distance running coach Diljeet Taylor, she had ‘no option but to be successful’

Coach Diljeet Taylor has returned the BYU women’s cross-country program to national prominence. Monday her squad will be among the favorites to win the NCAA cross-country championship

BYU women’s distance running coach Diljeet Taylor high-fives a runner during the 2019 NCAA West Prelims.
Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

It was with some trepidation that Diljeet Taylor packed up her family and left California — where she had lived for 38 years — to move to Utah. It was a long way from home, and that had little to do with the miles. As she puts it, “I was leaving home to come to a place where I’m not like everyone else.”

Her parents had emigrated from India. She was raised in a family that practiced the Sikh faith. She has thick, jet black hair, large dark eyes and coffee skin. All of the above would make her stand out in a Utah crowd.

After Ed Eyestone, the director of track and field and cross-country at BYU, convinced her to move to Provo to oversee the women’s distance-running program, she decided she had to go all in if she were going to make such a dramatic change in her and her family’s lives.

“I had no option but to be successful,” she said.

When she arrived in 2016, she invited Courtney Wayment, one of the team’s top runners, into her office and told her, “I promise you that in four years we will be on the podium in the national championships.”

That was bold talk, but she delivered. In Taylor’s fourth season on the job, the Cougars stood on the podium at the NCAA Cross-Country Championships, holding the runner-up trophy. Only six points — worth 22 seconds in the race — had separated them from winning the national championship.

They are ranked No. 2 in the nation heading into the “2020” championships, which were postponed last fall and rescheduled for Monday.

“It’s been fun to bring the program back to national relevance,” Taylor said.

Which is precisely what she has done. From 1995 to 2003, the BYU women’s team was a powerhouse under coach Patrick Shane, with four national championships and three runner-up finishes. Their worst finishes during that nine-year stretch were third and fourth places in the NCAA championships.

Then the program went into decline. From 2006 to 2015 their highest finish was 19th and four times they failed even to qualify for the national championships. As Shane neared retirement, Eyestone began searching for a new women’s coach.

Diljeet Taylor has been promoted to BYU head women’s cross-country coach.
BYU women’s distance running coach Diljeet Taylor has returned the BYU women’s cross-country team to the national stage.
Nate Edwards, BYU Photo

He had noticed Taylor at various track and cross-country events. Taylor was coaching Cal State Stanislaus, a small Division II school where she had once competed for the school’s track team. That was a feat in itself, given her background. As she told Flotrack that she was raised in a family that paid strict adherence to its Sikh faith, forbidding her to attend prom and high school football games. Her parents weren’t happy when she decided to participate in track and field.

“It’s not what Indian girls do,” she told Flotrack. “They don’t put on short shorts and run in circles.”

She earned All-America honors and placed second in the 800-meter run at the NCAA indoor track championships. She was named the school’s Athlete of the Year and Scholar Athlete of the Year. Then she took up coaching and was equally successful. She mentored 16 All-Americans and took two of them to the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.

Eyestone was in Seattle for a competition and found himself sitting at a table with other coaches for breakfast one morning. Taylor was there and he was surprised when she greeted him by asking, “How are things in Happy Valley?” How did she know about Utah Valley’s nickname, he asked? She explained that she had married a member of The Church of Jesus Christ — BYU’s owner — and that her husband’s parents lived in Provo.

“I made a mental note about her,” said Eyestone. “She knew the culture and I liked her demeanor and the way she interacted with her athletes. It was obvious they were passionate about her. She was obviously a good coach and very passionate about it. She was personable and social, and she was successful at a small D-II school.”

He reasoned that if she was successful at a small school, what would she do with better athletes, the type of athletes that BYU recruits?

“It was a no-brainer,” he said. “And I felt like it would be nice to have a woman coaching female athletes.”

He offered her the job when Shane retired in 2016. Taylor and her husband, Ira, decided to make the move. Ira, a former Stanislaus basketball player, worked remotely for an accounting firm, which facilitated the move. They showed up in Provo with their two children in the summer of 2016.

“I had been to Utah,” she said. “I came here a little guarded, immersing myself in an environment with less diversity than I was used to. But I’ve loved being here and what we stand for. I came as an outsider, but I don’t feel that way anymore. It’s easy to buy into doing things the right way. I love that.”

During the six previous years before Taylor arrived, the Cougars failed to qualify for cross-country nationals three times and finished 28th, 28th and 23rd the other years. During Taylor’s first four years they finished 11th, seventh, 10th and second. On Monday they are expected to challenge Arkansas again for the national title.

“I had worked with limited resources and D-II athletes and was successful there,” she says. “I thought I could do it anywhere. I never doubted we could do what we’re doing.”

Taylor’s impact has also been felt in cross-country’s sister sport, track and field. Wayment has the fastest times in the nation this year in the mile (4:30.47) and 3,000-meter run (8:54.90), and Olivia Simister ranks third and fourth, respectively, at those distances. Claire Seymour has the fourth fastest time in the 800 (2:02.20).

Five BYU athletes own times that rank among the top 15 in the country in the mile. After just five years, Taylor’s runners dominate the school’s top-10 board for all-time indoor marks, including the top 10 times for the mile and the top two times in the 800, 3,000 and 5,000.

“Honestly, that’s why I came to BYU,” said Taylor. “I came with the goal to bring this program back to being nationally dominant. I told that freshman class (in 2016), this is what our vision is. I had to get them to buy in. The most important thing is to get them to trust you wholeheartedly. You can’t become elite in this sport with being 50% committed.”

Erica Birk-Jarvis, left, and Courtney Wayment celebrate with coach Diljeet Taylor, center, after receiving All-America honors at the NCAA Championships.
Erica Birk-Jarvis, left, and Courtney Wayment celebrate with coach Diljeet Taylor, center, after receiving All-America honors at the NCAA Championships.
aren Wilkey, BYU Photo

Asked how she did it, she said, “We created a sisterhood, a culture of strong women who empower each other. We built this thing on love. What we have here is so different than anywhere else.”

She has created “a ton” of traditions and a strong team culture while developing close relationships with each of her athletes. For one thing, as has been widely reported, she writes a hand-written card to each of her runners before every race, each containing one recurring theme — “I believe in you.” Some of her athletes save them to read the day of the race.

“I would say my relationship with her is one of the best relationships I have in my life,” Wayment told Runner’s World in 2019. The team wore a beanie after the meet that read, “Taylor Made.”

Taylor takes a holistic approach to the job, one that goes beyond overseeing workouts and the usual things that come with coaching. Like so many other sports (and the world at large), track places an emphasis — tacitly or otherwise — on being thin when it comes to female athletes, which can bring a litany of issues, including bulimia, anorexia and amenorrhea.

“We address those conversations head on,” said Taylor. “It’s very important to fuel our bodies with good things so they can do good things for us. With women it’s a little different with the bone structures. We want to make sure they are having periods, for bone strength and for having children and things beyond sport. We want periods. If they’re not having them, we need to talk about it and increase fat intake or cut (training) mileage. … We have a very healthy culture.”

As she noted for Runner’s World, Taylor had noticed over the years that happy runners usually perform better, and to that end she plans parties and activities for the team.

Taylor has transformed the women’s distance running program at BYU and brought it up to the level of the men’s team, which is the defending national champion and ranked No. 1 in the nation this year. They are challenging Arkansas as the best combined program in the country.

“My expectations of Diljeet were high going in because I had seen her in action,” said Eyestone. “Having said that, she has surpassed my expectations in every way. She has resurrected the women’s distance squad and placed it back into not only a place of relevancy, but superiority on the national level. She has empowered our women to accomplish great things on the track and off. … We are a much better program with her as part of it.”