WHITTNI ORTON WAS ALL SMILES after her NCAA XC win. And why wouldn’t she be? As BYU coach Diljeet Taylor says, “It was a long time coming.”
Orton’s path to the championship was a rocky one. The Cougars’ recordholder in the indoor mile, 3000 & 5000 and the outdoor 5000 had missed out on winning a national title due to a C19-canceled NCAA Indoor, injuries and poor racing tactics. Her best finish in cross country before Tallahassee was a 7th in ’19. Both she and her coach felt it was just a matter of time, but when that time would come was always the question. And time was running out. That’s what made the win so sweet.
As Orton put it, “The comeback can be greater than the setback and I saw that. I’m very very grateful.”
And what a comeback it was.
A lot had to change for Orton to win and the changes were dramatic for her. The workouts and racing schedule all changed in one year leaving Orton casting a bit of doubt on her fitness and abilities.
“We did a completely different way of training last year,” she says. “That kind of brought a little lack of confidence as well to change your style of practice so that was something to battle as well.”
And what changed in her training? Orton likes to really test herself in workouts choosing to “go dark” as she calls it. But this year, it was more a conservative approach she says.
“We took a more controlled approach and I think that was good for us.”
Orton’s rough spring in track and still being in the building stage of her training in September took away some of her confidence before the FSU Open on the Nationals course on September 17. But you wouldn’t have known it looking from the outside looking in. She won in typical fashion, getting to the front and easing away for a 4-second win. She also came away with a good look at the facility, which is something she really liked.
“To see the course and see that it is something I really like. It has a lot of downhill. I like speed. I like track a lot so it was a very beneficial to me and a lot of my teammates to see the course.”
The next change coach Taylor decided on was racing Orton less, including her skipping the Regional. Orton raced only once more, at the West Coast Conference, which she won.
Taylor knew it was tough for her charge, but November 20 was clearly the goal: “I recognized what we could do today. It was real. It was a real opportunity so nothing mattered until this Saturday in November. That’s what we trained for and it was hard for her. It was hard for her to go on trips and not get put in and sit back and watch her teammates. But she just trusted the plan every step of the way.”
The intangibles put Orton over the top on Saturday- the biggest being her mental state and faith in God and her coach. Both Orton and Taylor say that is where the biggest growth has come in the last 5 months.
“I think every runner goes through this. There is always a little doubt and lack of faith. I don’t know how many prayers I have said through running. That allowed me to come back and be faithful and relying on something else besides myself,” Orton says. “That’s really what it took for me to come back. I was in the very low. It feels very good to be on a high, that’s for sure. The mental and physical progress I have been able to make this season and a lot of it is because of [Taylor]. I’m very very grateful to her and I love her very much.”
Taylor says her biggest contribution to Orton’s success has been believing in Orton and conveying that to her. Friday night before the race. “Last night I texted her, ‘I believe in you,’” says Taylor. “And she texted back ‘I trust you.’ I knew good things were going to happen today.”
Orton hit on all cylinders on Apalachee Regional Park’s course and fought her urge to go to the front. The pace was not too fast or too slow as she kept everyone in check. She could see defending champ Mercy Chelangat of Alabama at the front, but for the most part ran a bit scared as Chelangat fell behind and Orton thought she was shadowing her waiting for a big move.
But Orton was on a different level and wasn’t going to be denied. Her move up The Wall was hard and fast and she kept going closing the last kilo in 3:00.
The celebration that ensued for Orton included a long embrace with Taylor and a big hoisting and long lasting embrace and kisses from husband, Mason Morgan.
Taylor put it best: “That win for Whittni Orton was a team win. We all felt that. Super proud of her. She has been so relentless and resilient in every comeback that she’s had to have. I couldn’t imagine ending on a better note than what she did today. I knew that was in her for many years. It was nice for everyone else to see it.”