On Cara Woolnough’s iPhone calendar, the weekend of June 8-11 has been blocked off for months.
That’s when the NCAA track and field championships will take place.
But Woolnough, a Utah distance runner, hadn’t made plans to be in Eugene, Ore. She had purchased tickets to New York City. On the night of the NCAA track and field championships, she had planned on attending a Billy Joel concert.
Well, forget that New York state of mind.
Woolnough, who qualified for the outdoor 5K, will be one of two runners representing the Utes this week in Oregon.
“I definitely wasn’t expecting to make it to the championship. That’s for sure,” Woolnough laughed.
It can be forgiven Woolnough didn’t see a bid to track and field’s biggest stage as a possibility. Not many people from Utah — a small, women’s only program that focuses on distance running — make it to the NCAA championships.
But this year, Utah’s blue-collar program is making a habit of rewriting the expectations. It has two qualifiers in the NCAA Championships for the first time in a decade. Woolnough and Josefine Eriksen have set several school records. If it wasn’t for a harder-than-expected regional meet, Utah’s Simone Plourde would have likely made it, too.
“The program is thriving right now,” Woolnough said. “I think this program often goes unnoticed. I feel like we surprise everyone, every time we compete. I think that’s just the story of this team, constantly surprising people.”
For a long time, Utah operated in the shadow of other Pac-12 programs that routinely pump out Olympians and national champions. UCLA and USC are perennial powers. Oregon, with its state-of-the-art facilities, is so good that it actually hosts the national championships every year.
So, for the last decade, Utah has been seen as little more than a track outpost in the mountains with a group of scrappy distance runners. Here and there, it would get somebody into the championships. But it was tough to pull in enough talent all at once to truly burst onto the scene.
Woolnough is a perfect example of that. She is from Australia and had never even heard of Utah when she went on her recruiting tour.
She visited Ole Miss and the University of Portland late in the recruiting process. When she arrived in Salt Lake City, she didn’t expect much.
“You come here, and I’m amazed by the fact that no other Australians have really been to Utah,” she said. “I was looking really last minute because our school year ends in December in Australia. So I started looking when I graduated in December of 2016. But it was black and white with the other universities I visited.”
This year’s NCAA tournament will be the stage the program needs to change its perception. It will always be small and scrappy. But having two people competing will put it on the map.
It will be a chance to show why Utah had its highest finish in the Pac-12 since 2012. And why, under the radar, Utah has multiple athletes competing on the international circuit.
And, just maybe, it will be enough of a platform to slightly change the expectations around the program. Instead of planning trips to New York during the championships next year, runners will block off time to head to Eugene and compete on the biggest stage.
“I’m so stoked to make it,” Woolnough said. “To compete with the best girls in the nation, it does sound exciting to me. It is unexpected. I suppose I just prefer to surprise myself.”