Utah track: Rosalie Waller goes from walk-on to Utes' leader
It can look like chaos a whirl of legs and arms pumping as the runners speed down the track.
Through Rosalie Waller's eyes, it slows down. After years of running the 800 meters, she sees the patterns and senses the opportunities. When she sees an opening, she can power through it.
Even if the competition happens to include five of the top 10 runners in the country.
"That last 100 meters, I was sprinting as hard as I could, and thinking, 'Someone's going to pass me,'" she said. "It felt so long at the end. But it worked out."
A Utah senior, Waller is headed for the NCAA West preliminary after finishing second in the Pac-12 championships in her signature event. It was the best finish ever for the Utes in the 800 meters, a career achievement few might've ever expected when she first joined the team years ago.
From walk-on to setting the pace for the program, the 22-year-old Waller is as surprised as anyone.
"It was just really training with a good coach and investing in track," she said. "I always feel better after a run."
It was four years ago when the e-mail popped into Burke Bockman's inbox. An incoming freshman from Bountiful who had won a state hurdles championship was interested in walking on to the team.
"I still have saved the e-mail," Bockman said. "I wish I could say I knew what we were getting."
It took a little time for the coaching staff to recognize Waller's specialty would be the 800-meter distance, a race notorious for being an uncomfortable middle ground between sprinting and distance disciplines.
She had the talent, but not the strategy. It took her time to understand the positions she should take and learn to run with the pack instead of fighting through it. A biomedical engineering major who has consistently been among the team's leaders in GPA, Waller has a mind suited to correct her mechanics, to learn from mistakes.
A year or two ago, Bockman said, Waller wouldn't have been able to finish strong like she did in the Pac-12 championships. But this year, she was able to run the second half of the race seven seconds faster than the first, reflecting her growth as a competitor and technician.
"She knew where she had to be, who she had to be with," he said. "This year, she's been so much more confident. She controls everything out there."
If the program could choose a poster child, it would be Waller. Bockman said her work ethic has carried over to a younger generation of runners the Utes have recruited since joining the Pac-12. Waller was also recently recognized as the university's female scholar-athlete of the year for her success combined with her high academic marks. Between preparing for NCAA preliminaries on May 29, she's been taking job interviews as she pursues a career designing medical devices.
Waller's individual success can be seen as a model for how the Utes would like to succeed as a program one day: a blue-collar work ethic carrying them to more podiums. To date, Utah is still mired toward the bottom of the conference, despite scoring more points in the Pac-12 championship than ever before.
But Waller said she has seen signs of growth in her four years. She hopes she can keep paving the way for more this weekend, when she attempts to keep bursting past expectations as her career draws to a close.
"It's definitely cool to see all the freshmen who have done so well, and to have been a part of that," she said. "It would mean a lot to keep it going."