LOGAN – She thought she had come up just short in the biggest track and field meet of her career.
Utah State University junior Cierra Simmons crossed the finish line in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 9:49.33 mark at the NCAA Track & Field Championships. It was a new personal best and school record, but she felt some disappointment. She was lying on the ground, exhausted, mistakenly thinking she had come short of achieving first team All American.
That All-American honor is given to the top eight finishers in each individual track and field event. Simmons was in the sixth spot entering the final lap, but fell behind and struggled to catch back up.
“I was like, ‘Oh man, now I’m in ninth. I have to pass this one girl. I have to at least beat this girl,’” she recalled. “So going into the last 100 it was a full-on dead sprint, anything we could give.”
Simmons shortened the gap between her opponent but wasn’t able to overtake her. It wasn’t until Boise State’s Allie Ostrander and New Mexico’s Charlotte Prouse found her after the race that she learned the good news.
“They came over and hugged me,” Simmons said. “They could tell I was kind of just like done. That’s when they looked up at the board and just realized, ‘Hey, you’re eighth!’ So it was kind of a happy reunion, a Mountain West fam hug, it was good.”
In addition to becoming an All American, Simmons’ finish gave the USU women’s team a point in the overall standings, making it just the fourth time in history the Aggie women have placed at the national level, and she isn’t done yet. Simmons still has another year of eligibility left; another year to improve and compete. USU head cross country coach Artie Griggs believes there is more to come.
“Cierra had a fantastic season and I am so excited she is just a junior,” he said in a USU release. “She hasn’t even tapped her potential yet. She is paving the way for even more success in the future from the entire women’s team.”
Simmons didn’t expect to reach this level of accomplishment, and said college running wasn’t a part of her plan. She was looking forward to studying at USU, but hadn’t been offered a spot on the team. That changed when she came to campus for a high school track meet and caught the attention of Aggie coaches. It was during the meet that Simmons’ former high school opponent and current teammate Tylee Newman-Skinner, who had already committed to USU, told distance coach Steve Reeder about Simmons.
“She had told her coach to watch out for me,” Simmons said, “and so one good race here proved that ‘OK, we should look at her.’”
All-American status was far from Simmons’ mind when she joined the team in 2014. She recalled others talking about a former USU All American from the women’s team, but remembers saying that it “would be cool for whoever does that.” She didn’t think it would be herself.
“This was one of those things that I never really allowed myself to dream about,” she said, “because I just figured it was so far out of reach.”
It wasn’t until the 2016-17 season when she started to see her own potential. Simmons had been away from competitive running for almost two years as a missionary for the LDS church in Florida. The cross country season went well, but the track season started with a record-breaking performance. Her first steeplechase race after returning to USU was a personal best and a school record. People started to notice, and the talk started.
“I was like, ‘I can make a difference here,’” Simmons said. “I don’t think being All American was on the horizon yet but that is when it started to seem like, ‘Hey, I can do some big things while I’m here.’”
Simmons credited a lot of her success to coaches, who, according to Simmons, believe in their athletes and help the athletes have that same belief in themselves.
“They believe in me and they push me and I believe that’s the case with all the runners,” she said. “They see our potential and they plan well for that, whether it is planning recovery so we can make it there or it’s pushing us a little further than we have in the past so we can improve.”
She said taking two years off from training to do missionary work didn’t hold her back, but that the break helped.
“I didn’t have to mentally stress about running,” she said. “I did run. I wouldn’t call it training, but I tried to stay in shape where I could. You have a little bit of time for exercise every day and I became known as the one that would make you get out and run in the morning.”
Simmons wants to keep qualifying for big races and improve her time, but most of her senior year goals involve her teammates. She doesn’t want an Aggie making trips to nationals to be a surprise. She wants to be the norm.
“I want to leave something behind,” she said. “I want the trend to keep going… I want to help that be a belief, a common thing.”
Simmons said the support she’s received has been a game changer.
“The belief from the coaches is huge, but the support from the community and just friends and family in general are really what make it worth it,” she said, “because at the end of the day, the race hopefully lasts less than 10 minutes, but the support and all that lasts a lot longer.”