SALT LAKE CITY — Many college athletes in Utah postpone their careers for a couple of years to serve church missions. Football players, basketball players and soccer players all do it and most are able to stay in decent shape and regain their skills soon after returning.
It’s a different story for distance runners, who must rely on long runs to stay in shape, something that isn’t possible with the tight schedules missionaries are required to keep.
That’s the challenge Sarah Feeny faced when she chose to interrupt a promising running career for the University of Utah to serve an 18-month mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
Feeny faced another obstacle when she was assigned to the North Dakota Bismarck Mission, a cold area where it stays below freezing for much of the year. Missionaries get 30 minutes to exercise every day, plus time on their preparation days, which would be nice if you were in Florida or the Bahamas. But when it’s below zero in December and January, it’s hard to go outside and run.
For much of the year, Feeny was able to run for a half hour — back and forth to her patient companions — but on those cold winter days when she had to stay inside she would do “knee-highs’ around her small apartment.
That went on for a couple of months in Fargo, North Dakota, and guess what happened?
“I ended up matting down the carpet in the shape of a track,” she said and then with a laugh added, “I didn’t mean to do that.”
Feeny returned from her mission a little over a year ago and though her first runs were “slow,” it didn’t take her long to get back to form. She performed well for the U. cross-country team in the fall, had a strong indoor track season and has run one of the best times in the nation this spring in the 1500-meter run.
“It has been interesting to see the process of getting back into real collegiate competition shape,” she said. “I just feel so much stronger and I’m realizing I’m in even more in shape than I was before (the mission). It’s been a long process, gradual, but it’s been fun.”
Feeny’s coach, Kyle Kepler, can’t say enough good things about Feeny and has been pleasantly surprised at how quickly she’s gotten back and even surpassed her previous times.
“A year to the day after she came back, she ran 4:36 for a mile that got her the last qualifying spot at the NCAA indoor championships and two and a half hours later ran a 9:07 (in the 3,000) that broke our school record,” Kepler said. “That was a double that had all the other coaches turning their heads.”
She’s kept it up in the outdoor season, setting school records in both the 5000- and 1500-meter runs. Her 4:13 time in the 1500 last month, smashed her personal best by five seconds and is second best in the Pac-12 and fourth-best in the nation.
Feeny was born in California and moved to Ogden at a young age, but didn’t start running until she was 9. It wasn’t a great start as she finished seventh out of eight girls in a state meet, but her coach encouraged her to keep at it and the next year she took first in the same meet. She soon developed a love for running and by the time she got to high school she decided to stop playing competition soccer and concentrate on her running talent.
Feeny became a star at Ogden High School, setting several school and state records, and she had her choices of all the in-state schools and took a recruiting trip to Stanford. She decided on Utah for a variety of reasons, including her love of roller coasters.
Feeny says she’s been “intrigued” with roller coasters since she was little and used to enjoy them in California and when she’d come to visit grandparents in Utah and go to Lagoon. It’s been her goal ever since to become an engineer and design and build roller coasters.
“I’m an engineering major and I wanted a school that had a good engineering program and a team that had the potential to go to nationals,” she said. “It was always my goal in high school to be with a team that goes to nationals. I was looking for schools with that potential and a coach that I could connect with. I decided on Utah and I’ve enjoyed being near home and have loved the team both before and after the mission.”
Because she was already a top-notch collegiate runner — one of the best distance runners to ever come out of Utah, says Kepler — Feeny had a tough decision to make three years ago.
“I was not one of those people who grew up always wanting to go on a mission,” she said. “When I turned 19, I kind of started thinking about it. I know God knows what’s best for my life and it was going to be the best thing and it would all be worth it in the end. I decided to go another year (of school) instead of going after my freshman year and that was amazing because that was the first national team in cross country and a really cool experience. I left at a good time for me and coming back it’s been even better.”
Although he missed having her on the team for two seasons, Kepler was supportive of Feeny going on a mission and said it has helped her development in many ways.
“She’s come back grown up and more mature, stronger, more fit and loves being part of the team,” says Kepler. “One thing that going on a mission has helped her is her decision-making process. Knowing that’s just life and being able to roll with the punches a little bit. That’s been a big part of her growth this year. Her mission helped her understand it that things aren’t going to be perfect and we’re just going to roll with it and do the best we can.”
Feeny agrees, saying, “This year, after being back from my mission I feel like I have a different mindset where I haven’t worried so much about the results and worry more about competing and doing my best. As a result, it’s helped me to compete well and to become better than I was before.”
Next up for Feeny is the Pac-12 track and field championships in Tucson this weekend. Only Oregon’s Jessica Hull has run a better 1500 time and only by a little more than a second, so Feeny has a chance to win Utah’s first Pac-12 individual title. In the 5000, she ranks fifth in the conference at 15:41, six seconds behind Hull.
“The Pac-12 meet is essentially the Olympic Trials Lite,” Kepler said about the competition this weekend. “It is so good in every event you've got to be on your game.”2 comments on this story
Not only does Kepler believe Feeny has a chance to win an event this weekend in Tucson, but she “absolutely” should be in the mix in the 1500 at the NCAA meet next month.
“The mission and the extra time and the mental growth has allowed her to take the next leap,” Kepler said. “She’s extremely strong-willed, a hugely positive human being, believes in herself and is not afraid. She’s one of the most natural racers I’ve ever had, and she’s so coachable. She cares at the highest level not only about her own improvement but about her teammates; she gets as much energy out of them improving as she does herself.”