The story of one of BYU's greatest running families may very well have begun with, of all things, a pulled hamstring at the 1972 Canadian Olympic Trials.
After winning Canada's national championship in the mile and two-mile three consecutive times heading into the trials, Ray Rohatinsky was recruited heavily by the University of Wisconsin. After pulling up lame at the meet, however, the Badgers lost interest and Ray, a Roman Catholic from Edmonton, Alberta, was suddenly up for grabs.
Upon his return home, Ray was called by BYU, who offered a scholarship. Rohatinsky jumped on the opportunity. The Cougars landed a number of big recruits that day, not the least of which was the yet-unborn future NCAA champion Tara Northcutt.
Tara's running career began at the tender age of four, when she managed to sneak into a youth race where the preschooler competed in the lowest age group, the third graders. Managing a 14th place finish, Tara already had her taste of competition, and she took off from there. Already walking at only eight months, Tara's overabundance of energy was a good fit for her father's active lifestyle.
"The earliest memory I have of running is when my dad would come down to the fieldhouse to work out. Us kids were so hyper, we would be all over the place. Usually, we'd try to run with our dad and he'd slow way down for a lap so we could keep up. I actually think that gave us some confidence," remembers Tara.
There was a time, however, when the chances of Tara becoming a five-time All-American appeared slim to none.
"Tara was our miracle baby," recalls her mother Sylvia. "I had cancer before she was born. Following the treatments, the doctors told me not to get pregnant for six months to a year to avoid complications. I became pregnant within weeks, and the doctor warned there was a 60 percent chance that something would be seriously wrong with her-more than enough to warrant abortion. She made it through, and since then, has been determined to fight her way through anything."
Sylvia remembers one occasion that demonstrated this determination, "When Tara was 16 she had to have her gall bladder removed. After she had surgery, she couldn't even stand up straight. We took her home to rest, but she was all worried that she would get out of shape. She had me walk her around the culdesac outside our house, huddled over like an old lady. One week after surgery, she went out and won a cross country race."
Although Tara was undoubtedly a talent throughout her life, the fact was sometimes overshadowed by younger brother Josh's achievements. This was all too clear for Tara when she placed in the 100s at a Junior National cross country race, which wasn't really that bad, except that Josh happened to win the race. "I just cried and cried," says Tara. "It wasn't that I was jealous of my little brother, I was so proud of him for all his victories. I just didn't want to let my dad down."
Despite family and friends who overlooked her in favor of Josh, Tara started to make a name for herself as early as sixth grade, when she beat all the boys in her class in the mile run. She didn't start training seriously, however until high school, where she met up with friend and running companion Mary Juan at Provo High. Juan, who would go on to run for Stanford, gave Tara the challenge she had been looking for. "For two or three years I was always getting beaten by her," said Tara. "Then, during one race, I found myself right next to her and slowed my pace. When I passed her a moment later, it broke a mental barrier inside that had been telling me there are some people you just can't beat."
Tara's high school career was solid, but not spectacular, as she failed to ever win a state cross country title. She did, however, win the two-mile championship twice and the mile once. Ray started to really take notice of his daughter's talent during her junior year.
"I realized she was really gonna go places after her first serious competition. It was a cross country race, and she had to be in the top 25 to qualify for nationals. After a couple of miles she was in 30th. She realized she had to step it up and she did, eventually taking 16th. That's what started it all, in my opinion."
In retrospect, it was surprising that Tara was relatively unnoticed and unrecruited coming out of high school. In the end, her choice of college came down to two schools: BYU and Utah. "Everyone just assumed I'd go to BYU but I wanted to prove I was wanted elsewhere," said Tara. "I went to Utah for a visit, but I just didn't feel comfortable there. Inside I always knew I was headed to BYU."
It also didn't hurt that head cross country coach Patrick Shane was roommates with Tara's father in college, and Shane had his eye on Tara from early on.
"My friend Mary told Stanford's coach to call me," said Northcutt, "but they just didn't see the talent. That's what Coach Shane is really good at: recognizing ability that other people just can't see."
The transition from high school to college, difficult by most any standards, was significantly tougher for Northcutt, who was forced to redshirt her freshman year in cross country following a hiking injury during preseason camp. She was out competing in the 1998 track season, but, with a tired body adjusting to the amount of training, never really made a big impact for the team. Her real achievement of the year came that summer, when she won the 5,000 meters at Junior Nationals, barely missing a trip to the World Junior Championships in France by a second and a half.
A coach's decision late in the 1999 season brought Tara her first breakout performance in a steady but relatively quiet career. After qualifying for the NCAA outdoor championships in the 5,000 meters early in the season, Coach Shane entered Tara in the 10,000 meters at the Mt. SAC Relays later that year. It was a somewhat unusual move, considering that Tara had just finished ninth in the 5,000 at the indoor NCAAs, and had trained for the 5,000 all year. She went out and ran an automatic qualifying time at the meet, and decided to switch her training over to the 10K.
"That surprised a lot of people," said Tara. "I felt very, very calm going into the NCAAs. There was a lot of prayer involved that weekend. I was in the middle of the pack through most of the race. I usually don't look around at all when I'm running, but for some reason I turned to my dad in the stands and gave him the thumbs up. I felt confident. I held my ground, and finally took the lead with about eight laps to go. Two girls passed me on the final lap, and I put in one last kick to take second. I was excited. I never would have thought I'd do that well."
The highlight of Tara's career came on May 31, 2000 at Duke University's Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C. In the final event of the first day of the NCAA Track and Field Championships, Tara overcame stifling heat and sauna-like humidity to capture the NCAA 10,000 meter championship, becoming the first BYU woman ever to win the event.
"My goal was to be an All-American," said Northcutt, who already had other citations. "All of a sudden I was coming down the stretch with only [BYU teammate] Marty Hernandez in front of me. I could tell I was going to pass her and the thought went through my head, 'Marty won't win this.' I had mixed feelings, but was definitely happy to win."
"The most special part of the victory was seeing my dad break down and cry, seeing his little girl do something that was the ultimate, that he never had the opportunity to do."
The win was a surprise to many, but not to her coach, who had seen Northcutt's potential. "It gives you an idea of what kind of competitor she is," said Shane. "Although she wasn't picked by any of the so-called experts to win, she did it. You have to look and say the girl knows how to compete."
Tara also gives credit to her husband, Paul, who has been a huge support since their May wedding.
"He is such a cheerleader," explained Tara. "We went to Las Vegas on our honeymoon and I wanted to work out at UNLV's track to stay in condition. It was a sunny day, and I was lonely and hot out there. Paul picked up one of those orange cones and used it to yell through and cheer me on. That's just the kind of husband he is."
After peaking at the national meet, Tara was determined to qualify for the U.S. Olympic Trials in Sacramento.
"I was in great shape at nationals, but between then and the next qualifier [July 1] I lost it. Even some of the workouts coach gave me I couldn't finish. My body was too tired from the long season. My goal for next year is to work on better endurance so I can achieve more accolades in the postseason."
The Rohatinsky story, already sporting more than a fair share of success, doesn't look to end soon. The men's distance team scored a huge victory this summer when it signed Josh, one of the top handful of high school talent in the country, to run for the Cougars. Then there's the youngest, Jared, only 12, who finished fourth in the 800 meters in a recent national competition.
"When her career's over with, there won't be many athletes at BYU who will have earned as many All America letters as Tara Rohatinsky-Northcutt, regardless of sport," said Shane.
"In two full years of competition, she already has five, including one academic. She could have a dozen by the time she's through, and that doesn't even tell the whole story. There aren't many national champions that come along, and she's accomplished that with a solid year and a half left in her career."
After her running days are through, Tara envisions herself as a health teacher and running coach at a high school, maybe in the San Diego area. For now, she has her eyes on the 2000-2001 season, where the finally will defend a pair of national titles.
"I don't dwell on my victories very long. I always think about the future," said Tara. My thought is usually 'what about the next one?" Cougar coaches and fans are hoping the next one is already on its way.