BYU sisters reunite on track team

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Lauren Ellsworth remembers the last time she ran a relay race with her sister, Alena, before attending BYU.

It was 2014, and the sisters were teammates at Highland High School. The team was behind Desert Vista High School in the 4×800 relay when Lauren passed the baton to her anchor, who was able to make up the difference and secure the state championship.

The winning relay four years previous, one that Alena said was an actual photo finish, foreshadowed a successful future for the sisters. In the duo’s first college distance medley relay together at BYU on Jan. 5, they helped set a school record of 10:56:51, the fourth fastest time in the country.

Juniors Erica Birk-Jarvis and Whittni Orton were also included in the BYU distance medley relay team. The record surpassed the previous school record of 10:56.73, which was set at the 2009 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, by .22 seconds.

From left: Whittni Orton, Alena Ellsworth, Lauren Ellsworth and Erika Birk-Jarvis of the BYU women’s distance medley relay team pose with coach Diljeet Taylor after beating the school’s record on Jan 5. (Lauren Ellsworth)

Running has been an active part of the sisters’ lives from a young age. Ironically, middle-school-aged Lauren originally favored cross country, disregarding track altogether.

“I avoided track at all costs,” Lauren said. “I thought it was boring and preferred long distance running.”

Lauren’s hard feelings against short-distance running were softened in high school when a boy encouraged her to give it a try.

“He said, ‘You have to, you’re too good not to run, and all the guys take off their shirts, you gotta do it,’” Lauren said. “I decided to try out for one day, and it was actually good.”

During what would be Lauren’s final track season as a junior, Alena entered high school, giving them a chance to race together. That would be the sisters’ only high school track season together.

Lauren attended a trek activity her senior year that mimicked the trail hiked by early pioneers. The activity resulted in an ACL tear that would end her high school track career. Luckily, she had become Arizona’s high school girls record holder in the 800m with a time of 2:07 prior to her injury.

“It was a bummer because it was her last year there so we weren’t able to run together,” Alena said. “She came out to practices, but she wasn’t on the relays with me, so it wasn’t as fun.”

Just one week after the accident, Lauren visited BYU for her official visit with former track and field head coach Patrick Shane.

“No one knew that my knee was torn,” Lauren said. “We were doing the tour of campus and we were going to go up the RB stairs and I just thought, ‘Well, this is going to hurt.’”

Doctors repaired her ACL in October 2014 and cautioned her to wait until April to run to allow her to heal prior to starting her college running career.

Prior to leaving on her mission, Lauren Ellsworth earned a college personal record of 2:06.48 in the 800m. (BYU Photo)

The following fall, Lauren returned from her running hiatus and officially became a Cougar. She left for her 18-month mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in the Iowa Des Moines Mission after her freshman year. She continued to run without hindrance on her mission until just three months in when she tore her meniscus.

“I slipped on some ice in Missouri,” Lauren said. “I knew I hurt myself because I couldn’t bend it or straighten it all the way.”

This injury resulted in surgery and a visit from her mother and grandmother. She wanted to stay on her mission and started teaching lessons again just days after her procedure.

“I ended up staying out on the mission thanks to a lot of miracles,” Lauren said.

After her surgery in March 2017, she decided to take a year off from running — her longest break yet.

“I tried to go run on the mission, but I had a lot of problems,” Lauren said. “So, I decided to not run until I got home.”

Meanwhile, after hearing positive comments from Lauren and reviewing Alena’s high school accomplishments, BYU’s new track and field associate head coach Diljeet Taylor extended the invitation to Alena to run for BYU.

“I was recruiting her sister, knowing that Lauren was going to be coming home from her mission,” Taylor said. “I sold it like, ‘It could be the Ellsworth sisters at BYU.’”

Alena found herself unsure about which race to make her specialty, but ultimately chose the 800m, accepting Taylor’s offer. This decision came because she knew she could rely on Lauren’s motivation during training.

“I decided that I wanted to go for the 800m because I’d be able to run with Lauren in the group,” Alena said. “If I had gone with the 400m, I wouldn’t have been able to run with her.”

Lauren arrived home from her mission in March 2018 and instantly started to train, hoping to make a good impression on her new coach.

“I was in decent shape, but running in Arizona is hot, so my summer consisted of me going back and forth about whether to run or skip it that day,” Lauren said. “Coming back from a mission is harder than coming back from an injury.”

Taylor said it was an easy transition for Lauren to come back to BYU because of the culture change the team had initiated. Alena said this new culture focuses on providing love and encouragement to the team.

“For Lauren to come in and see what we had done in the couple of years that she was gone, I think it was easy for her to buy into the new culture,” Taylor said.

In addition, Lauren said she feels her effort in practices has improved because of Taylor’s motto.

“Taylor’s motto is ‘look good, feel good, run good,’” Lauren said. “If you see us on the track, we have makeup on. It’s funny; she’ll look at you and know whether you’re going to run fast or not.”

The sisters’ success did not falter after they broke the school record in their first college meet. The team earned 14th place at the NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships on March 8 — BYU’s best team finish since 2012. The distance medley relay team, including Lauren, snagged a second place finish, beating the school record yet again with a 10:54.14.

“It’s so ironic because in the DMR, the Ellsworth sisters set the school record,” Taylor said. “It’s a cool thing because that’s how I sold it to Alena.”

From left: Brenna Porter, Erika Birk-Jarvis, Anna Camp-Bennett and Lauren Ellsworth of the 2019 women’s distance medley relay team received All-America First Team honors after breaking BYU’s record. (BYU Photo)

Alena said running with her sister is her favorite pastime. She believes their sibling relationship works in their favor and not against them, allowing them to test their limits.

“I just get so much more energy from Lauren,” Alena said. “She pushes me in my strengths, and I push her in her strengths, and we are both getting better together.”

Not only does Alena enjoy having Lauren back on the team, Taylor said she believes they would be incomplete without each other’s motivation.

“For me as a coach, it’s nice to see that they complement and bring out the best in each other, rather than compete against each other all the time,” Taylor said. “It’s a very good mix.”

Taylor said she looks forward to watching the sisters continue in the nursing program and contribute to both the track and cross country teams in the coming years.

“I love their toughness,” Taylor said. “They have so much grit, and it’s very exciting to watch. They feed off each other. It’s competitive, but it’s contained competitiveness.”

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