BYU's Virginia Harrier, Laura Heiner

Laura Heiner can run really fast, for a long time, without stopping.

It's a talent that made BYU's 5-10 sophomore the most sought-after cross country recruit in the nation. The Virginian is well on her way to becoming one of the best women runners in Cougar history.

Two years ago, running powerhouses from around the country turned their attention on Centreville High in Clifton, Virginia. Narrowing her choices to Georgetown and BYU, Laura decided to join the Cougars.

"I just couldn't imagine looking down the starting line and seeing 'Brigham Young' on someone else's jersey. I guess I just always felt like this was the right place for me," said Heiner, a native of Provo.

The decision may well have been just what the team needed to overcome "post-Chan" depression. Maggie Chan, a winner of three cross country All-American letters and almost every other award imaginable, graduated last year. Fortunately for the Cougars, it was the same year Heiner achieved All-American status as a freshman, something done by only two other women in BYU history.

It may have all started when the kids in Laura's elementary school got together to run the mile in gym class. She beat all the boys. A few years later, Laura was on the eighth grade track team, running in nearly every possible event and winning.

Laura strays from the typical athletic profile. You may see her at weddings playing a violin in a string quartet with some other girls on the team. She also plays the piano and is an avid dancer.

From helping with the "Buff Don't Puff" anti-smoking campaign to speaking to youth groups across the country, Laura pursues her love of helping others. She often spends hours at a local retirement home, visiting with elderly ladies as she paints their toenails.

Running came naturally to Laura. Her family would run together on country trails in Virginia, which may explain why four Heiners are past or present members of BYU cross country teams. Laura credits most of her success in running to her older sisters, Cammie and Jessica. Her younger brother Daniel is a freshman on the men's team.

Laura was impressive from the very beginning in high school, keeping up with her coach in an 800- meter workout as a freshman. "I think we may have something here," he told Laura. He was right.

High school track and cross country meets became personal showcases for Laura. She won early and often, culminating in an undefeated season her senior year in which she had the best prep time in the nation in the mile (4:47).

She became one of only a handful of girls to ever compete in the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships all four years in high school. Laura finished fifth in the nation both her junior and senior years.

The first real challenge for the gifted runner came in a junior high meet. Although Heiner and her teammates would always win the team competition handily, her school's 4x400-meter relay team was a consistent loser. As a senior, Heiner ran the anchor leg, picking up the baton nearly 200 meters behind her opponent. Although seemingly out of the competition, Laura hit an incredible burst of speed to catch up to and pass her counterpart at the finish line. Heiner points to the victory as a major turning point in her running career. She started to get the feeling that she couldn't be beat. It wasn't far from the truth.

It didn't take long for Laura to exceed all expectations. She began to out-run her sister Cammie, two years her senior, in her earliest races. Older sister Jessica was soon to follow. Although it was hard at first for the elder siblings to accept, they soon realized that Laura had a special talent with huge promise.

"She's an amazing runner," says Jessica, who redshirted the 1997 season so she could run with Laura in '98. "She kind of has this other gear. When we're getting close to home she has this instinct I call 'green light.' She doesn't even realize it, but she accelerates until she is sprinting right into the finish. She can run really hard and fast for a long time, it's her biggest strength."

Her biggest fan, who also happens to be her father, says that Laura is a different person on and off the field of competition. "She's two things, I'd say. She's a very bubbly, enthusiastic person in general, but when you get to competition she has the heart of a lion. She will never give anything less than her best in a race. She may have days when her body won't let her do her best but she always puts everything into it."

Laura made a statement in her first meet as a Cougar. Competing in the 1998 Mountain West Classic, she finished first for the Cougars and third overall in a solid team victory. "It was kind of hard for me because as I was nearing the home stretch I came up to Maggie [Chan], who was our number one runner. I thought 'should I pass Maggie?' I decided to go for it," said Heiner.

That finish put her into the third spot on the team behind Chan and Sharolyn Shields. She was the third finisher for the Cougars at the NCAA Championships, where she finished 31st overall and an All-American.

Despite all of her accomplishments, Laura feels the best is yet to come. "I hear that runners usually peak around 24 or so. I believe that I will continue to improve and, if the timing is right, I plan on training for the 2004 Olympics," said Heiner. Her best hope for Olympic glory will probably be in the 3,000 meters, the event in which she finished 14th at the NCAA Championships earlier this year.

From all appearances, 1999-2000 will be a breakout year for Heiner. While summer break can often be an obstacle to staying in race shape, Laura used hers to work into the best shape of her life. Her most intense workouts were during a week she spent in the mountains of Virginia, where she used a mile-long hill to test her stamina. She trained with men, hoping their fast pace would simulate race conditions.

"Her training habits have improved tremendously," said Coach Patrick Shane. "She had harder workouts and higher mileage. I can't say enough about her preparation for this season. She's not the same runner. She's much better."

"I think I'm ready. Last year I wanted to prove myself. I did that, and now I have to set higher goals," says Heiner. Her goal for the 1999 season is to finish in the top 20 at the NCAA Championships. All things considered, it's a humble goal.

The next step for Laura? Leading the Cougars back to the national title they claimed in 1997, before finishing second in '98. "Laura is definitely a big key to our success this season," said Coach Shane. "Right now, if I had to pick, she would be our top runner. In practice, she looks like the woman to beat."

That's not a bad feat, especially considering the fact that BYU is the preseason favorite to win it all this year. She's the No. 1 runner on the No. 1 team in the nation. As intimidating as that may sound, for opposing teams there's one more fact about Laura that is the most frightening of all: she's only a sophomore.