‘An eerie day’: Coaches, teammates and friends remember slain Utah track student Lauren McCluskey as relentlessly driven and always kind

(courtesy University of Utah) Lauren McCluskey is seen on August 30, 2017 in Salt Lake City.

Lauren McCluskey had her choice of four schools.

She could have gone to Washington State University, her hometown college, where both of her parents work as professors. She could’ve gone to Idaho, still close to home but perhaps with some space to feel like she was out on her own. She could’ve gone to Colorado, which offered her a spot on its top-tier track team.

After months of weighing those options, she landed on the not-so-obvious choice, the one everyone else thought was far-fetched: the University of Utah.

She liked the coach. She liked that its track team specialized in the high jump. She felt there was “a lot of student support.”

(Courtesy The Moscow-Pullman Daily News) This Nov. 20, 2014, file photo shows Lauren McCluskey as she removed her Pullman High School jacket to reveal a University of Utah T-shirt. McCluskey signed a letter of intent to compete in track for the University of Utah.

“I decided that Utah was the best fit for me,” she explained to the Moscow-Pullman Daily News in 2014 during her senior year in high school. “It was a really hard choice. …I think the best advice was just go with your gut reaction of what you felt was right.”

And McCluskey became a star athlete and scholar on the Salt Lake City campus. In 2017, she was named to the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation’s all-academic team. She bested her own personal records nearly every year on the team as a jumper. She ranked tenth all-time at Utah in the pentathlon.

She was remembered for those accomplishments — her remarkable decision to come to Utah, her relentless perseverance in the sport, her love for the team — by friends and family and teammates Tuesday, one day after she was shot to death on campus by a man her family said she had dated for a month. Her parents said he lied to her about his name, age and criminal history.

The university was in mourning Tuesday for the 21-year-old track-and-field athlete from Pullman, Wash., with classes canceled and counselors available for students, staff and faculty at several locations on campus. The U.’s victim-survivor advocates can be reached at 801-581-7776.

“This isn’t right,” Utah Athletic Director Mark Harlan said as he stepped to the podium during a news conference. He described McCluskey’s death as “just defying any logic, any reason.”

Harlan said he met with members of the U.’s track program early Tuesday, and “every single counselor that the university had showed up.” They remembered McCluskey for her passion and her smile. And Harlan pledged all of the school’s teams would spend the rest of the year honoring her.

Utah’s next athletic event, a women’s volleyball match against Washington State on Wednesday night, will be played as scheduled, he said. But her tragic death has sent ripples of grief through the school’s athletic community.

Beth Launiere, Utah's longtime volleyball coach, said the team practiced Tuesday after some players spoke individually with university counselors and an athletic department staff member addressed the team. “It's hitting different people in different ways,” she said.

The players wrote letters to McCluskey's family and members of the track team before practice.

The Associated Students of the University of Utah and the athletic department have planned a vigil for McCluskey on Wednesday at 5 p.m. It will be held on the steps of the Park Building. A GoFundMe page has been created for current students, alumni and fans to “band together in this tragic time to cover the cost of Lauren McCluskey’s funeral.”

After meeting with coach Lynne Roberts, who gave them the choice, the Utah women’s basketball players were determined to maintain their training schedule Tuesday, as well. But five minutes into a weightlifting session, Roberts’ assistant could tell their hearts and minds were elsewhere and suggested she should make the players take the day off.

“It just hits so close to home,” Roberts said. “It was just a really tough morning … an eerie day in the athletic department.”

Some of Roberts’ players knew McCluskey personally; several lived in campus dorms and were affected by Monday night’s events. “Scary, frightening,” said Roberts, citing her players’ sense that “Oh, my goodness, it could have been me.”

“The trauma of last night has clearly impacted our entire campus community,” said Lori McDonald, the university’s associate vice president and dean of students.

McCluskey’s was the second shooting death of a University of Utah student in just under a year. On Oct. 30, 2017, ChenWei Guo, a 23-year-old computer science major from China, was murdered by Austin Boutain, who fired several shots into the car he was driving. Boutain pleaded guilty in September and was sentenced to life without parole.

Police found McCluskey’s body in the backseat of a car outside the student dorms. The scene was maybe a mile southeast of where Guo died.

McCluskey’s teammate Grace McLaughlin tweeted Tuesday, “Please pray for Utah’s track team and Lauren’s friends and family.” Former Utah All-American Grayson Murphy added, “RIP Lauren, may your jumps be forever high and runs forever fast.”

Another teammate summed up the shock of McCluskey’s loss on her Instagram page: “Speechless. We love you & miss you so much already.” Junior distance runner Anna Busatto wrote: “Goodbye Little Angel. We will all miss you.”

Utah’s track-and-field coach Kyle Kepler said in a statement that “everyone associated with our program is devastated by the loss of Lauren. There are no words to express the emotions and grief we are experiencing right now."

He called her a “wonderful person" who “showed a relentless drive to improve … and was always kind and supportive of her teammates.”

University President Ruth V. Watkins, who was traveling, issued a statement praising McCluskey as “a highly regarded member of the university’s track and field team and an outstanding scholar, a senior majoring in communication. … As a campus community, we share grief over this tragic loss of life.”

Pete Herber, McCluskey’s former event coach at the U., reflected Tuesday on her official visit to Utah after the school recruited her. McCluskey came with her mom, Jill, and the two “were so excited about the trip and her future,” said Herber, who now coaches at Oregon State University.

“We viewed her as a key person in building our combined event group,” he said, but added she became a key figure on the team for her positivity and resilience.

“There will be stories told about Lauren for decades by those who knew her. She left her mark on all of us.”

-Tribune reporter Scott D. Pierce contributed to this story.