Friday, May 7, 2021

Jared Ward: Olympic marathon runner and BYU stats professor

BYU statistics professor Jared Ward spends much of his time teaching his students through complex numbers and data. But those aren’t the only stats on his mind.

He’s more concerned about his marathon mile splits.

Ward is a long-distance runner who is best known for his appearance in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics where he placed sixth in the marathon, a race that included 155 athletes from 79 different countries. The 32-year-old continues to train today in preparation for the 2024 Paris Olympics while teaching his stats class on the side.

“I tell students that running is my job and teaching is my hobby,” Ward said.

Early running

Ward knew he had a talent for running at an early age. Because he was often the smallest in his class, other sports weren’t as accessible, but running was always one of his strong suits. The Kaysville native really got his running career kickstarted at Davis High School, where he had to crawl his way up to the varsity team.

“I had a really supportive high school coach,” Ward said. “Even in the early years in high school when I was deep down in the junior varsity squad, he still invested time in me and validated my goals.”

Ward was leading the Davis High long-distance runners by the time he was a senior, helping both the track and cross-country teams to state titles in 2007.

Ward (far left) with his Davis High School squad at the 2006 Rocky Mountain Region Championships. (Dyestat)

Following high school, Ward had his eyes set on continuing his running career, with little interest in academic pursuits. He was recruited by several universities in Utah, but something was different about his meeting with BYU cross country coach Ed Eyestone, who was a former Olympic marathon runner himself.

“(Eyestone) showed up at my house and he was wearing an Olympic ring,” Ward said. “I thought that was so cool, and it kind of hit me that I could have the opportunity to be coached by an Olympian.”

After touring the university and being introduced to the BYU cross country team and staff, Ward knew that it was where he wanted to run.

Time as a Cougar

Upon arriving at BYU in 2010, Ward was asked to choose a major by one of his athletic advisers – a thought that had never crossed his mind until that point. Only one subject stood out to him.

“I told her that I felt like I was good at math but I didn’t really like it,” Ward said. “And then I said, ‘Well I did like my statistics class in highschool.’ And she said, ‘You can major in statistics.’ And I was like, ‘Oh great, put that down.’”

Little did the freshman know, but that statistics major application would turn into a graduate degree, and eventually a teaching opportunity at BYU.

Ward ran for the Cougars from 2010-2014, earning both All-American and All-Academic Honors nearly every year. (BYU Photo)

Ward red-shirted the first year after his mission, a period in which he got married, began his statistics program, and traveled with the team while recovering from a stress fracture. This busy time of his life proved to be overwhelming, and one day after practice he decided to tell Eyestone that he was going to quit running.

Instead of pressuring him to continue, Eyestone encouraged him to pray about the decision.

“I went home and I spent some time thinking about it, and spent some time praying about it,” Ward said. “And I remember feeling so strongly that I was supposed to be a runner. And so I was like, ‘If God wants me to run, then I’m going to run.’”

With a greater perspective and stronger mentality, Ward grew to love the sport again and chose to run the next four years for the Cougars. In his time at BYU, Ward was a four-time All-American, made a USTFCCCA First Team, and consistently led his team in the 5000 and 10,000-meter races, all while earning All-Academic honors three of those four years.

“He was a great team leader that the guys looked to and wanted to emulate,” Eyestone said.

2016 Rio Olympics

Ward graduated in 2014 with running still at the forefront of his mind, and Eyestone saw that Ward had potential to compete at an elite level beyond college.

“Jared was one of those guys you could depend on,” Eyestone said. “He was very consistent. And usually the more consistent a runner you are, the better a marathoner you’re going to make as you transition up out of college.”

Ward finished third at the U.S. Olympic Trials in 2016 to earn himself a ticket to the Rio Olympics. Because of exhaustion and heat, Ward found himself in a wheelchair soon after crossing the finish line. (USA Track & Field)

Ward continued to train with Eyestone after graduation and began to compete in marathons across the country. He quickly gained national recognition, taking home several first-place victories in some of the biggest races, including the 2015 USA Marathon Championships in Los Angeles.

Eyestone and Ward set the goal for him to run in the 2016 Rio Olympics, which meant he had to place in the top three at the U.S. Olympic Trials. The trials were held in Los Angeles on Feb. 12, 2016, and Ward would be up against the best marathon runners in the country, under the hottest conditions he had ever competed in.

Against all odds, Ward crossed the finish line in third place and earned himself a place on the Olympic team. Eyestone approached Ward after the race to congratulate his athlete.

“We were both emotional,” Ward said. “I think I said something like, ‘I did it coach.’ And he started laughing and said, ‘Jared, you’re going to get one of those rings.’”

Six months later, Ward stood at the start line in Rio de Janeiro surrounded by rain puddles, cameras, and the most runners the Olympic marathon had ever seen. He and Eyestone had agreed beforehand that they would be pleased with a top-10 finish but set a top-six finish as the stretch goal.

Jared Ward ran the race of his life in Rio de Janeiro, finishing in sixth place with a time of 2:11:30, a personal best for him at the time. Ward’s goal was to finish in the top six and he achieved that goal. (Photorun)

At about the 16-mile mark, Ward felt sick to his stomach because of the unfamiliar humidity. But when the thought of quitting came to his mind, he was empowered by thinking about why he was there in the first place.

“I’m running for my family and my faith and my school and America.” Ward said. “It was that motivation that helped me figure out how to navigate those last few miles.”

Ward began to surpass runners and even made up ground on the medalists, before finishing in sixth place. His time of 2:11:30 was less than three minutes behind the first-place finisher, Eliud Kipchoge, from Kenya.

With his goal met, Ward crossed the finish line with a smile on his face. The media spoke with him after the race, calling him the happiest sixth-place finisher they had ever seen at the Olympics.

2020 and beyond

Ward still consistently attends BYU Cross Country workouts and trains with Eyestone today. His quiet leadership continues to impact the current BYU runners, especially Conner Mantz, who is following closely behind Ward’s career footsteps.

BYU Coach Ed Eyestone and Jared Ward give advice to the team at the 2018 NCAA Cross Country Championships. (BYU Athletics)

“Jared is very personable,” Mantz said. “While Eyestone writes most of our workouts, it’s Jared who is a big supporter and leads by example.”

Earlier this year, Ward ran at the U.S. Olympic trials in preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. While his expectations were higher than ever, Ward did not place or earn a ticket to the Olympics. But this disappointment has only deepened his determination to compete, and brought him gratitude for what he has accomplished thus far.

“The Olympics come around every four years,” Ward said. “It’s one high-stakes race to get there, and then it’s one opportunity to perform in the Olympics. I had this cycle in 2016 where I had the race of my life to make it to the Olympics, then I had the race of my life again at the Olympics to finish sixth. And I couldn’t have drawn that up any better.”

Ward is preparing to compete in the 2024 Paris Olympics, with the help of his coach and the support of his wife, who would love to visit France. He still competes in marathons around the country and took eighth place at the Boston Marathon in 2019.

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