SALT LAKE CITY — University of Utah track and field coach Kyle Kepler jokes that he'd like to think he's just the smartest recruiter around.
But as he acknowledged, sometimes you just get lucky and find that diamond in the rough, the one who exceeds all expectations.
Such is the case with Amanda Mergaert.
Although Kepler was drawn to the times Mergaert produced at Utica (Michigan) High School, both coach and runner acknowledge that she wasn't even the fastest racer on her team back then. And according to Mergaert, she didn't even have aspirations of running in college until a friend who was being recruited by several schools starting sending the ones she was turning down — "her seconds" — to Mergaert.
In hindsight, the fact that Mergaert, who's since blossomed into an All-American, ended up at the University of Utah is the result of fortuitous timing.
"Amanda has really peaked at the right time and boy is she a competitor," said Kepler. "She hates to lose and you just can't teach that competitive spirit that drives her. At the same time, though, she's a great team leader who pushes her teammates and cheers them on."
When Mergaert was recruited by Kepler, she wasn't sure if leaving Michigan for Utah was the right decision.
"I wanted to go home so much during my first season," said Mergaert. "I was homesick and hadn't really found my home in Utah since I was far away from family and friends. Now I'm the complete opposite and don't want this time in Utah to end because I love competing, and love my team and this place."
Heading into this weekend's Pac-12 championships, the senior is nearing the end of a stellar career. She's the first Utah women's track and field All-American since high jumper Katie Decker (2004 indoor season), and the first Utah women's cross-country All-American since Celsa Bowman (1987). She holds the school indoor mile and outdoor 1,500-meter records, and is seconds off the school outdoor 800-meter record, a record she covets.
"I really think of myself as a sprinter and don't even really love cross-country," said Mergaert, who with Kepler has been able to change up her sprinting mindset into a distance attack.
"What's so great about Amanda is that she is competitive in both track and cross-country," said Kepler.
Last weekend, Mergaert helped the Utah 4x800-meter relay team break the school record in 8:38.56 at the Drake Relays, but wasn't able to do it on the individual side after getting tangled up with the pack in the first 400 meters of the 800.
"It's really eating me up to not get that record," said Mergaert. "I am so close."
"She has some time to do more individually with our final meets," said Kepler. "I also know she wants to help the team finish strong at the Pac-12 championships and regional (meet)."
Mergaert is one of the building blocks Utah's track and field team hopes to build on. When Mergaert came to Utah, it was still a member of the Mountain West Conference and the Utes didn't even have their own outdoor facility. Though the MWC is a good women's track and field conference, the Pac-12 is one of the best in the nation, with seven teams currently ranked in the top 25. Utah also has a beautiful new outdoor facility donated by the McCarthey family.
This season, Utah has been ranked as high as No. 52 (out of 312 teams) by the USTFCCCA, which is its highest ranking in school history.
"Amanda has been an integral part of everything we're doing," said Kepler. "She's gained confidence every time she has competed against the country's best and is sharing that competitiveness and confidence with her teammates."
Utah competes at the Weber State Open today in Ogden in preparation for the Pac-12 championships this weekend.
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