Gifted and intense on the track, U. student and track star Lauren McCluskey is remembered by her community

Outside of being a devoted student-athlete, she loved many things, and her reach showed.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Photos of Lauren McCluskey on display as It's On Us Utah hosts a celebration of McCluskey's life at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, Friday Oct. 26, 2018.

For now, it’s Lauren’s Tree.

And for now, crimson and white carnations surround the base of this new red maple, some of them wilting in the frigid fall air, others holding strong, petals as vibrant as they were a week ago. The view is one she’d have to smile over. She was a smiler, after all. It’s perched atop a slight hill on a bend inside the McCarthey Family Track and Field Complex, the tops of the Wasatch Mountains dusted in white in the distance.

It’s everything she loved about Utah, encapsulated there on the edge of the track she called home.

This is where they’ll find Lauren when they need her.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tree planted in memory of Lauren McCluskey, near the track at the University of Utah, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018.

If in need of a jolt of inspiration, a sprinkling of motivation, which Lauren never, ever was short on, or if they want to glance at Lauren’s Tree coming around that corner and just keep running. That’s what Lauren did. She was going to run as fast and for as long as necessary if it meant gaining an edge. That was the trickiest part about coaching her for those who watched her shine. And, in retrospect, the most gratifying.

“You enjoy the hell out of it,” Utah track coach Kyle Kepler said. “You almost just try and stay out of their way. [Athletes like Lauren] are, in our sport, exactly what you hope to have.”

For now, it’s Lauren’s Tree, although Kepler is leaving the name open-ended. It’s up to her parents, Matt and Jill McCluskey, to keep it or change it. The red maple is right there when you walk through the gate on the north side of the track; right where the 21-year-old Lauren, who was murdered outside her dorm Oct. 22, used to sprint around that bend.

‘She is fierce’

Lauren loved cats.

She volunteered at the Whitman County Humane Society in her hometown of Pullman, Wash. Her favorite program was called cat socialization. She’d work one on one with kittens or strays to help them become more adoptable.

“She thoroughly enjoyed that,” said her former high school track coach, Mike Hinz, who had coached Lauren since she was 8.

Lauren had a white cat. Its name is Victory. It was her pride and joy.

Lauren was gifted and intense on the track, and Hinz noticed she had, from a very young age, an uncanny will to work and outwork others. A former assistant coach to Hinz saw Lauren’s speed and jumping ability in practice one day and proclaimed she’d never lose a single high school hurdles event. She was an eighth-grader working out with the high school team.

“Well, that wasn’t exactly true,” Hinz said, “but it was pretty close to true.”

(Photo courtesy of Jill McCluskey) In this undated photo, Lauren McCluskey makes the "U" with her hands.

She earned 19 various USA Track & Field All-American honors. She was a state champion in high jump. She finished 10th in the heptathlon at the 2015 U.S. outdoor junior championships. Lauren, Hinz said, loved seeing improvement in herself. She possessed an internal motor unlike anyone else he’s coached. A catchphrase he still uses is he wants his track athletes to run tall and relaxed.

“I once said Lauren could do tall, but relaxed wasn’t in her lexicon,” he said.

Typical high jump starts are routine, relaxed. For Lauren, it was like a rocket from the get-go. That’s how she went. At her pace, at her speed, determined to soar the only way she knew how.

“She is a beast, she is fierce, she locks onto her target and off she goes,” said Desirée Gould, the McCluskey family’s neighbor and Lauren’s former assistant high school principal. “Super steely and determined.”

Some describe Lauren as quiet. Her family says she simply chose her words carefully. In a recent Facebook post, University of Utah professor Dan Clark outlined how Lauren’s approach to life affected him. Clark wrote that in his final lecture of the semester for his advanced public speaking class, he asked students to give a 4- to 7-minute speech explaining what message would they want to leave the world if they had one hour to live.

Lauren was the first to volunteer. Her chosen topic was keeping hope alive, accepting that overcoming obstacles is part of everyday life, that loving and accepting one’s self are vital because those are the only ways to love and accept everyone else.

“I will always remember your unique tranquil yet burning desire to be everything you were born to be, and to leave every person and place in better shape than you found us,” Clark wrote.

‘That kind and that wonderful’

Expectations for Lauren’s senior year at the U. weren’t at all complex. She told Kepler that she wanted to improve across the board. She wanted to get faster, more explosive, to be able to soak it all in. Unlike the overblown coaching cliché, it was actually all about the process for Lauren.

“Some kids only want to see the outcome or the end result,” Kepler said.

Lauren wanted to end each day knowing she’d done all that she could so that tomorrow would be a little easier. There were those training days where it felt off, when Kepler and his staff had to inform Lauren that track time was over. She would’ve just kept going. She became the prototype for Kepler’s program, an example he could point to when sitting in the living rooms of future Utah recruits. A student-athlete rooted in self-belief, rooted in helping teammates and taking life in the classroom as seriously as in track spikes.

Lauren had a 3.77 GPA and was a 2017 honorable mention Pac-12 All-Academic selection. She hoped to land a job in public relations or become involved with academic advising.

“You want your kids to grow up and be like that,” Kepler said, “and be that kind and that wonderful and be a kid [who] just wants to make a difference in the world. And I think that’s what she set out to do.”

(Kai Eiselein | The Moscow-Pullman Daily News via AP) Attendees listen to a speaker at a vigil for slain Pullman High School graduate and University of Utah communications major and track athlete, Lauren McCluskey, Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2018, in Pullman, Wash. Police said Melvin Rowland, 37, fatally shot 21-year-old McCluskey of Pullman, on Monday night on the university campus and then killed himself in a church as officers closed in.

Friends and family crowded the track at Pullman High School on Oct. 24. They were there for Lauren, the hometown star who loved her cat Victory, writing, Merlot, Kanye West, leaping over hurdles and rocketing out of her breaks before a jump. Some ran for her, some walked, some just took lap after lap. Some wrote notes to Lauren. Others stood silent, neon glow sticks in hand, as Lauren’s grandfather, Ross Rudeen, spoke about some of his favorite things about his granddaughter.

“The emotions are just raw,” said Gould, who helped organize the night dedicated to Lauren. “That’s where we are.”

The neighborhood cat, Sammy, a regular around Pullman High School for years, wandered onto the track that night and rubbed his neck against the flowers left for Lauren. Then he stuck around, next to a photo of Lauren, for a couple of minutes.

“It was like, ‘Oh, there she is,’” Gould said.

That same evening, hundreds of students, faculty, friends and Lauren’s parents gathered at the steps of the Park Building on the U. campus. Behind them was a red maple tree, much larger than Lauren’s Tree, but a red maple all the same. There, they cried. Because Lauren is gone. They still cry. The crimson and white carnations they held are now at the base of the red maple, next to the leaves that are falling from Lauren’s Tree onto the track.