BYU is used to men coming and going on missions. Professors, landlords and girlfriends all watch them leave. Coaches are used to these young men giving up their scholarships and handing in their uniforms for two years to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. But for a young woman desiring to serve a mission, the experience is a little different. A mission for women is not an obligation.
When all the sports coaches in the school were asked if there were any returned missionary sisters on their respective teams, only four names were returned. All four of these returned missionary sisters are track athletes.
Deezbaa Whaley, Sharissa Thayer, Sarah Yingling and Amy Moffat compete on the BYU track team. Whaley, Thayer and Yingling had the chance to compete before their missions, while Moffat felt her mission led her to participate in track.
Whaley, Thayer and Yinling decided to leave the track, their scholarships and their schooling behind to serve a mission for 18 months. Each had to walk into their coach’s office, someone who had a plan and expectations for them, and tell their coach they did not fit into that plan for a while.
“They were always supportive of what the girls decided,” Whaley said. “They understand that if the girls want to go on a mission, it’s a step that will bless our lives in the future. They encouraged me to pray about it and to make sure it was what I wanted to do.”
All three students remarked on the immense amount of support and encouragement they received from their coaches.
“I think the most important thing is having support from the coaches,” Thayer said. “(There were) several girls considering missions, and having supportive coaches helped us to leave.”
Each student spoke of a different way they handled track training — missionary style. All three made an effort to stay fit, but not just for track; it is their way of life.
“My mission president would ask me in my interviews if I was exercising, and he would allow me an hour (for that),” Whaley said. “So I would get up an hour earlier, and my companions were so supportive and they would always get up with me.”
Moffat felt inspired on her mission to train for track and field for the first time since high school.
“I just had to trust that I was doing the right thing and trust the promptings I had that track was okay for me,” Moffat said. “I could prepare for (try-outs), and it wouldn’t take away from my mission.”
The girls’ athletic experience helped them in more ways than one on their missions.
“So many times on my mission I was really grateful that I was really athletic for most of my life,” Yingling said. “Especially as a distance runner I had the stamina to walk around all day. I was grateful that I had been kind of trained to do that.”
The lessons they learned on the track translated to valuable lessons on their missions and in their spirituality.
“I was so grateful that I had that experience and that I had the mental discipline to keep going when things were hard,” Yingling said. “I think track gave me the desire to work hard and to fight for things that seemed impossible.”
Athletics is more than about pushing your body, it’s about mental discipline, desire, hard work and goal setting, and so is missionary work. All four of these young women shared their experiences with God strengthening them athletically.
“I think the lessons and the impact that track had on me to make me a hard worker and give me perspective and goals gave me what I needed on the mission to achieve what I needed to as a missionary,” Whaley said.
After 18 months in a new location, immersed in a different lifestyle, these students returned home from their missions, an unforgettable transition.
“The day after I got back I went to see the coaches. I wasn’t released yet so I still had to wear my name tag,” Whaley said. “(My dad and I) went and met with the coaches, and they said, ‘We are ready to have you back.'”
Open arms from the coaching staff were waiting for Yingling and Thayer as well.
“Three days after I got home, I called coach, and he acted like I had never left,” Yingling said. “He said, ‘Come in when you can, and we will talk about your training.'”
For Moffat, the experience was a bit different. Try-outs for the track and field team were to take place within one month of her arrival home from her mission. She prepared and trained and followed her impressions to try out for the team.
“I really didn’t think I would be able to get on,” Moffat said. “I was praying so hard; I knew there was a role in me being there.”
Now all four are immersed in school and their training, competing in indoor track and field and preparing for outdoor track and field, and they haven’t forgotten what their missions have done for them.
“I’ve been back for a few months, and I feel like I’m already way better than I was before,” Thayer said. “The potential I have now is way better, and I’m just more focused and dedicated.”