Without much fanfare, Utah has emerged as a per-capita standout in distance running. For a state with a population just under 3 million, Utah regularly produces strong teams and individual runners at the NXN and Footlocker national cross country championships at the high school level, competitive collegians, and a surprising number of postcollegiate standouts. This isn’t entirely surprising: if you give 3 million people the chance to live and train at altitude year-round, good things can happen.
This being Utah, not all of the distance running stars are LDS, but, this being Utah, a lot of them are. There is probably some kind of connection between Mormon belief and success in distance running as well, as the success of some non-Utahn Mormons suggests. Ideology can play an important role in athletic training, as the unmatched success of Bill Aris (embracing a different but highly effective philosophy in his training program) at Fayetteville-Manlius High School in New York shows. Not every human endeavor is a great match for a prototypical Mormon lifestyle or outlook, but distance running seems to be one of them. Perhaps you will not be saved by persistent effort and a commitment to personal improvement, but it will get you to your next PR.
Now that a few of my kids have taken an interest in running, it turns out to be very helpful to be able to point to members of the church who excel in the same activity. It’s useful to be able to say, “See Jared Ward, who just made the US Olympic team in the marathon trials last month? He just finished a master’s degree in statistics at BYU.”
(If you watch the embedded video, produced by Ward’s sponsor, Saucony, you’ll see a few subtle indications that Ward is LDS.) And it’s especially nice to point out Sister Ward (no relation) when we see her at church on Sunday and mention that she also ran in the Olympic trials marathon. Or to tell my kids, “See the sophomore in this video from 2013 who opens a 20-meter gap meters on the field just two laps into the 3200 at the Arcadia Invitational? Now he’s serving a mission in Ghana.” (The field eventually caught up to him, but it was still awesome.) Or when the American Fork High School cross country team takes third at NXN and produces the individual winner, I can point out that I’m pretty sure their coach is the son of a valuable contributor to the Sunday School class I taught as a grad student in Illinois (back when I was a thoroughly terrible Gospel Doctrine teacher).
So, to all of you who are providing helpful examples of combining church membership with excelling in something that interests my kids, thank you. It helps them see that a commitment to their faith can happily co-exist with accomplishment in other fields.
My children also have other interests, of course – I wouldn’t mind knowing of an LDS guitarist who appeals to patrician-level hipsters, or a mathematician of the same caliber. My family has no interest in pro sports, though, so high-level football or basketball players are of little interest to me. If some Mormon baseball player’s team manages to win the World Series, I’ll be glad to hear that, at least for a few seconds. But that still won’t make me read the box scores.
As useful as Mormon celebrities of a particular kind may be to me, perhaps it’s best not to think of celebrity as involving a commercial transaction. My personal interest in some athlete and increased willingness to purchase the fine products of his or her sponsor do not oblige the athlete to win or, outside of athletic competition, to act in ways that I approve of. Celebrity is instead a mutual gift: people struggle for success in their particular area and lead lives of their own choosing, and I choose to invest my vicarious hopes according to arbitrary and personal standards. For those of you who are providing easily-accessible examples of Mormons succeeding in things that I or my children care about, though: thank you, and good luck in Rio.