In light of this and 100’s of other similar threads over the past few decades, on the topic of the BYU mission/age advantage, I would add my personal experience to the debate. People can make assumptions of pros/cons and advantages/disadvantages, but I can only speak for me. My decision to serve a mission was a barrier in achieving my running dreams and potential. Having said that, I wouldn’t have traded my mission experience and looking back, would have made the same decision.
In high school I was a ranked in the top 5 nationally in the 1600 and 3200. I had significant improvement my freshman year under coach James (the coach of Eyestone, Padilla, Marsh, Cummings) and made it the NCAA final in the 1500 where I lined up with guys like Lagat, Berryhill and Lassiter – pretty stoked just to be there as an 18 year old kid. I had the fastest freshman (and American Jr) 1500 time in the USA (3:43) and things seemed to be going my way. I was rarely, if ever injured and my dreams of national championships and the Olympics seemed on track for where I was for my age/experience.
I then had a decision to ride that train or take two years off and serve a mission. I had people tell me I was crazy for stopping what I had going for me, including coaches from other schools. It was a difficult decision, but in the end and trying to keep perspective, felt that though I loved running, it wasn’t my top priority.
I took two years off and ran very rarely, only as fast as my companion could go – never more than 2 miles at a time for the majority of my mission. I did get to run on a track we near where we lived once a week for 5-6 miles in my last two months before I came home. Hardly Olympic training. I gained 20 lbs and knew I’d have an uphill battle when I got back. Eyestone was the coach when I returned and I tried to ramp up my mileage, only to experience the first of three femoral stress fractures. After red-shirting, my sophomore year was a disappointment – qualifying for the regional final, but not making it to nationals. I did make it to NCAA finals my Junior year, but only through the regional system – still having not surpassed my freshman time. Entering my senior year in 2005, I still had not run any faster than I had in 1999.
How many collegiate athletes make no improvement in a 5+ year timeframe? Fortunately, for my senior year, I finally strung enough months of staying healthy to put together a decent campaign where I was able to run 3:38 and take 2nd in the 1500 final to Manzano.
Looking back, if my end goal was to “maximize my advantage” over the competition, going on a mission was not the ticket.
My senior year we had a lot of talent on the team in terms of XC pedigree (this is before NXN). We had 3 guys on our team that were Footlocker finalists, 1 California Division I state champ and two other guys that were 10th and 12th at Footlocker regionals that just missed the cut. (I was 10th at regionals and back then they only took 8. It’s top 10 now – still sad about that ?) We finished 5th at nationals that year, but I would think a crew like that, if we’d kept things rolling from high school, would have done better.
As it turned out, it also put me on a collision course to compete with Olympic medalists Nick Willis (indoor mile champ) and Leonel Manzano (outdoor 1500) in that senior year. On paper, graduating in 2002 or 2003 could definitely have been a different story – no way to speculate races that were never run, but definitely a less stacked field. Again – not serving a mission could have been a more direct path to achieve my goals.
Every person that decides to serve a mission will have a different story and have different reasons for going or not going. I made my decision, and strongly feel that it was never in an attempt to gain any advantage over anyone in the NCAA. For me, there was no guarantee that things would come back after two years off, and to be honest, I was afraid they wouldn’t. Many of my teammates were in the same boat. I saw guys come back and never run faster. I saw guys that came back and picked it back up, but they were the type of guys that had tons of high school success and would have succeeded regardless. Never at any time did the coaches or my teammates say “sweet – we’ll just go out for two years and come back older and stronger!” It was more the opposite. A fear of the unknown. A leap of faith. Not knowing if we stepped off the track, if we’d ever get back on.
I returned to Portugal (where I served) this past fall for the 1st time in 17 years with my wife. I thought about how my life would have been different if I’d decided to not serve a mission. Maybe I’d have a USA uniform in my closet and other boxes checked off in my dream list for running. Maybe not. Looking back, in the grand scheme of things, running was a temporary passion. I loved every minute of it (minus the elliptical workouts with a stress-fracture). I drove 10 hours round-trip to go watch the great race up in Madison. I still run for fun and jump in an occasional 5k/triathlon just cause I love competing, but it doesn’t define me. It doesn’t pay my bills. My point is that many who serve missions are not doing so for athletic advantage, but for personal reasons – independent of athletics.
I have no regrets with my decision, like I said I wouldn’t change it – but please don’t put a blanket statement out there that it is either a personal advantage or that it’s an intentional ploy to improve a national ranking. It certainly wasn’t for me.
Every athlete has their story. This is mine...