Thank you Brother Ward, Sister Ward (no relation), Elder Mantz, and Coach Mostert (probably)

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.

12 comments for “Thank you Brother Ward, Sister Ward (no relation), Elder Mantz, and Coach Mostert (probably)

  1. March 17, 2016 at 1:01 pm

    Yeah, there is a hint or two. What a great representative for the companies that sponsor him.

  2. Ben S.
    March 17, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    As a a runner myself, I appreciate this.

    But why the mustache?! Seriously. I saw this video recently, of Nike’s mountain running team, and I thought, “are they all trying to look like stereotypical 70s creepers?” One guy has a mustache AND a mullet. If I encountered him on a plane, I would not think, “This guy is a professional athlete.”

  3. Fellowbird
    March 18, 2016 at 3:22 am

    Got any in this sort of class?

  4. IDIAT
    March 18, 2016 at 1:00 pm

    A question. I am an amateur (with a capital “A”) runner as part of my exercise routine. I exercise in knee length shorts and t-shirt so I can wear my garments. (And yes, I live in the Gulf South where it is hot and humid and I do just fine.) College and professional basketball players spend hours running up and down the court with knee length shorts, and many wear short sleeve shirts. Which makes me pose the question: why can’t LDS athletes (in most sports) wear their garments and still wear clothing that works for their sport? I don’t expect a competitive swimmer to wear his garments (though I’ve seen one piece suits that might actually work), but it seems like runners “have” to wear short shorts or they aren’t considered serious runners. Would running a 5K in knee length shorts and t-shirt really add that much time to one’s race? I mean, if it’s freedom of movement you want, you might as well run in a Speedo. Someone who’s a real, competitive runner fill me in.

  5. March 18, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    I’m not letting hair styles (facial or otherwise), clothing choices, or even Sunday workout schedules (about which I know nothing) affect my fandom. It seems unproductive to expect more from the athletes than from others I admire. I assume everyone is trying to adapt the requirements of their sport to their personal situation as best as they can. It’s an interesting question – to what degree does someone have to be Mormon, before tribal identity prompts me to take an interest in whatever it is they do? I prefer to set the bar pretty low: do they claim their membership in the church? and do they keep some minimal level of church teachings so that the church can claim them?

    IDIAT: If you run a lot faster, your body will generate a lot more heat. Additional clothing makes it that much more difficult to keep your body’s temperature in balance, which can have dramatic effects on performance. Your suggestion to run in a Speedo is not that far off from what a lot of high-level female athletes wear.

  6. Ben S.
    March 18, 2016 at 3:32 pm

    For me, I don’t exercise in my garments because I consider it slightly disrespectful to deliberately subject them to excessive sweat, dirt, grime, etc. I don’t wear my garments under my chamois bike shorts because a) they’re not designed for that b) serious chafing and c) excessive sweat, dirt, grime, etc.

    Now, that’s a modern take. Ancient priestly garments were routinely splattered with blood, which didn’t affect their holiness in the least, and they didn’t have modern soaps, washers, etc. But that’s my take.

  7. IDIAT
    March 18, 2016 at 5:38 pm

    Jonathan Green and Ben S. Thanks for the comments. I sweat, but not profusely. I need to up my game:)

  8. March 18, 2016 at 7:35 pm

    Okay, JG – the real question is:

    Have you seen this amazingly 70s pro-running video from BYU (from 1971), “Run Dick, Run Jane”? If not, you need to. It was played quite often at Mutual when I was a youth, despite being nearly two decades old at that point.

  9. Bryan Stiles
    March 21, 2016 at 12:41 pm

    Regarding his mustache. The first thing I thought of when I saw him was Steve Prefontaine. I don’t know if he is intentionally doing a throwback, but when I was in high school XC (long after Prefontaine’s death) Prefontaine was one of the few fairly famous runners that anyone knew about because of a couple of movies made about him that we would watch anytime there was a bus trip.

    Additionally, y’all really need to get over your judgments of other’s fashion/grooming choices. If he wants a stache, let him have a stache.

  10. Kristine
    March 23, 2016 at 12:35 pm

    It’s not just Utah Mormons :)

    (Yeah, mostly just taking even the slightest provocation to brag about my baby brother :))

  11. March 24, 2016 at 9:11 pm

    Thanks for the comments and links (even those that I cannot unsee, Ivan). Kristine, I especially appreciate the non-Utah examples, because the effect of religious belief on endurance sports is a lot more interesting to me than the effect of training at altitude.

  12. March 28, 2016 at 10:21 am

    I liked it. Good perspective, and good to be introduced to these particular Saints.

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