In Utah universities, it is not uncommon for athletes to take a leave of absence from school to go on a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is often broadcast when football or basketball players serve a mission, but smaller sports don’t get as much public recognition. University of Utah cross country member Sarah Feeny was one of the few who chose to serve a church mission when she was of age.
Feeny, a junior at the U, returned home from her church mission in North Dakota in the spring. Feeny was an instrumental part of the 2015 cross country team, the first team in school history to qualify for the NCAA Championships.
Feeny hails from Ogden where she grew up in a split household, her father sporting the crimson red of the U and her mother wearing BYU’s blue.
The first time head coach Kyle Kepler saw Feeny run, he wasn’t originally there to recruit her.
“She was a sophomore at the state championship cross country meet. We were actually recruiting one of her teammates, who also ended up coming to Utah. She’s always been a natural talent. She’s worked really hard to utilize that talent and it’s been a fun process,” Kepler said. “She was one of the all-time greats in the state of Utah in the high school ranks and we recruited her really hard.”
Feeny was sold on Utah after hearing Kepler tell her about the strong potential that the team had. She also wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps of being an engineer. Kepler said that the strong program at the U made the choice a little bit easier for Feeny.
For student athletes, having a major as complicated as engineering is a double-edged sword. Kepler says that having an engineer on the team is both a blessing and a curse. He has to, at times, remind her not to engineer everything on the course.
“There are times when we want her to be an engineer and help with mechanics in our running, but sometimes I need her to turn that off and compete and do what she does naturally,” Kepler said.
Feeny says that trying to switch out of “engineer mode” is a struggle she is still trying to figure out.
“It’s been a process for sure, which I am still working on. I am very number oriented. I need to be accurate to the dot with my mileage. That’s how I’ve always been. No shortcuts and so I think learning to listen to my body is something that I’ve been learning,” Feeny said.
Feeny believes that one of the ways she has learned how to balance a demanding major along with cross country came from the lessons she learned on her mission.
“I learned skills on my mission, like planning, and that has really helped me with managing my time better with my major and running and other stuff,” Feeny said.
Kepler says that Feeny was already a leader before she went on her mission, but the experience only made her a better leader.
“Any of us who have lived here long enough or grew up here understand the culture that an LDS mission really teaches kids a lot of things. It helps them grow up in so many different ways. It goes beyond the religion or the faith part,” Feeny said.
The team is trying to make it back to the NCAA Championships this fall after missing them last season. Even though there are a few girls left on the team from the run for the championships in 2015, Feeny knows how to help the team to make it back after a disappointing end to last season.
“I think we all know we can succeed, and that definitely helps. We all want to do well like the teams from a few years ago,” Feeny said.
Kepler said that Feeny is someone that the team can look up to. She is someone that doesn’t make it all about herself but will speak up if she needs to. He said she is a leader who helps out her teammates by example more than anything.