At the beginning of the year, Utah track and field assistant coach Rebecca Rhodes set a lofty goal for sprinter Josefine Eriksen, who was born in Stavern, Norway: to help her native country qualify for the Olympics.

Norway had not sent a relay team to the Summer Olympics since 1920, when the VII Summer Games were held, so the task in front of Eriksen and her country seemed monumental.

“At the beginning of the year, I told her that was going to be a goal of ours, and she literally said, ‘What, coach? No, you’re crazy.’ And I said, ‘No, that needs to be a goal of yours,’ and she’s like, ‘OK, I’ll trust you,’” Rhodes said.

Eriksen, who transferred to Utah from The University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley in 2022, had been running the 4x400 relay for the Utes since she arrived in Salt Lake City, helping set a school record in 2023 as the relay team ran a 3:35.00 to punch their ticket to the NCAA championships.

When Eriksen was called upon to represent her country, her years of running the 4x400 relay at Utah had prepared her for the moment.

The leadoff runner for Norway at the World Athletic Relays in the Bahamas, Eriksen ran her stint in 51.77 seconds (second-best on the four-person team), starting the event off on the right foot. Amalie Iuel (52.37 seconds), Astri Ertzgaard (52.81) and Henriette Jæger (49.94) took the baton and Norway finished second in the heat, with a time of 3:26.89, behind only the United States, which had a time of 3:24.76, to qualify for the Olympics in a relay race for the first time in over a century.

“Excitement. It was unreal and fun,” Eriksen said.

Following the race, Eriksen FaceTimed Rhodes, telling her that she had been right all along.

“You said that I was going to go to the Olympics,” Eriksen told her.

“Pretty special moment for Josie, for her team, for Team Norway, for Team Utah, for our staff, for everyone. I think everybody’s really loved seeing her grow as an athlete, grow as a person, and there is nobody more deserving. She is humble and hardworking and kind-hearted and just an excellent teammate,” Rhodes said.

Just five days following the triumph in the Bahamas, Eriksen was in Boulder, Colorado, for the Pac-12 outdoor track championships. There, Utah finished the meet with 22 points — the third-highest number for the Utes in the Pac-12 era — led by Eriksen, who finished third overall in the 800-meter, breaking a school record with a time of 2:01.58, then she helped break another school record as the Utes completed the 4x400m relay in 3:32.81.

The senior sprinter carried that momentum into the NCAA regionals, where she finished third in her heat in the 800-meter race to qualify for the NCAA championships. Shortly after that finish, it was a fast turnaround for Eriksen to compete in the 4x400m relay.

“They stepped up when they had to do it, and we did it with two women who had raced the finals of their individual events,” Utah coach Kyle Kepler said.

Utah’s relay team — Eriksen, senior Ally Gomm, sophomore Harley Daniel and senior Bailey Kealamakia — shaved off milliseconds from their Pac-12 championship time, setting the school record again with a time of 3:32.60 to punch their ticket to the NCAA championships.

“Well, we all started crying. We were super excited. I think all our hard work had paid off, so we were just super excited,” Daniel said.

It marked the first time ever that the Utes’ 4x400 relay team has qualified for the NCAA championships.

“With our 4x400, they’re going to make people beat them. They’re not going to beat themselves,” Kepler said.

“… I mean, they’re just connected and they’ve got a great chemistry about them and they just love each other to death and they’re cheering for each other and rooting for each other as hard as anybody can. So yeah, it’s kind of a defining, it’s our first relay in school history, so we continue to break barriers and look forward to keep doing that.”

The members of Utah’s 4x400 team echoed the sentiment of chemistry. Running is typically an individualistic sport, so the chance to compete with teammates makes everyone run that much harder.

“A lot of it comes from the energy around it. I think it’s also like a lot more pressure, but I also feel a lot more camaraderie around my teammates, just because I know that they’re going to try their hardest so I just have to elevate myself to that same level, and we’re all just pushing each other,” Kealamakia said.

BYU leads strong contingent of Utah college athletes into this week’s NCAA track and field championships

Utah has two other individuals competing in the NCAA championships in Eugene, Oregon, which will be held on Thursday and Saturday on the women’s side.

Daniel hit a personal best in the 400-meter hurdles at the NCAA regionals with a time of 57.45 seconds to secure her first appearance in the NCAA championships.

“Harley is one of the most competitive athletes I’ve ever worked with,” Rhodes said. “... She is the sweetest, kindest person to her teammates. You would have no idea having a conversation with her how competitive she is. But yeah, I think that that fierce competitive drive is starting to evolve her talent in a way that is incredibly special.”

Sophomore Erin Vringer rounds out the trio of individual Utes representing in Eugene after posting a time of 4:18.33 in the 1500-meter quarterfinals.

“Just a super coachable kid. She ran that race, the last race in Arkansas on Saturday. Exactly as we talked about. The plan was to be in the top five going into the last lap. It’s where she got herself. We knew if it came down to a kick, she’d be in a pretty good position,” Kepler said.

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It was a hard road for Virnger to get to her triumph at the NCAA regionals. Last fall, she suffered an injury that kept her on the sidelines throughout the whole fall season, but says the experience ultimately gave her a new perspective and helped her become stronger.

“I’m really glad that I worked hard when I was injured and stuck with it because it’s all paying off now. And yeah, it was really emotional after regional because I feel like I just was able to kind of appreciate it so much more and look back and see how far I’ve come,” Virnger said.

For the third straight season, the Utes have multiple athletes competing at the NCAA Outdoor Championships, and for the first time in program history, Utah is represented across four events.

“I think we’ve got a great group of women who are really well connected as a group, and I think we’ve got a couple youngsters in there. Last year we took three older, three seniors that are all gone now. And so for these guys to come in and kind of take that ball and run with it, I think it’s really special for our program as a whole, but especially to have two sophomores in that mix,” Kepler said.

Utah's Harley Daniel competes in the 400 hurdles at the Bryan Clay Invitational April 12, 2024. Daniel will be among the Utes competing in the NCAA track and field championships this week in Oregon.
Utah's Harley Daniel competes in the 400 hurdles at the Bryan Clay Invitational April 12, 2024. Daniel will be among the Utes competing in the NCAA track and field championships this week in Oregon. | Stephen Carr, University of Utah Athletics
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