Taylor Ewert’s focus on the details has not only made her the country’s top race walk prospect and an Olympic hopeful in 2020, but she’s become a star in high school distance running, too. Here’s where the season, and her future, heads.
The Sunday before the Greater Western Ohio Cross Country Championships was a day like any other for Taylor Ewert, really. It was driven by routine.
The 16-year-old from Beavercreek High School was up at 7 a.m. She went downstairs to her kitchen table, poured a dollop of oatmeal in the bowl she liked, and then paired it with some water and coffee. To her right was some light reading, the training journal which she had written in daily for the past 10 months.
Weeks earlier, meets had been highlighted and bolded and then colored, with goal times replaced by actual results, some of which were personal records.
And Ewert was a stickler for procedure. The training log not only was her daily planner, but her guide to future success. Being the daughter of an engineer and a physical therapist, who were former collegiate runners at Syracuse University, she knew that in order to improve she had to plan, and both of her parents were like human calendars.
In essence, the blonde-haired high school junior had taken their best traits. Highly driven like her father, the retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, and compassionate and genuine like her mother. She was richly competitive, too, like both of them.
Scribbled in big bold letters was “GWOC,” the conference championship race on Saturday. A year earlier, Ewert had finished fourth at this meet, then followed with a fourth-place outing at Districts, a third-place finish at Regionals and then another third-place outing at State.
But a year ago, she was also not the same athlete. Back then, she was still considered more of a race walk champion than the nationally elite distance runner she had now become. She had not yet won a truly big race, nor had she qualified for Nike Cross Nationals. She also had yet to fully figure out the steeplechase.
All those things would come her sophomore year, in the kind of nonstop rush that she rarely had time to think about. But by now, as Division I college coaches were calling and gushing over her future, she knew she was so much more than a race walker.
Ewert looked at the journal, studied it over her oatmeal, then readied for her next task.
Like most Sundays, she was focused on progression, so she slipped on black compression tights, grabbed a quarter-zip and then a pair of race walk flats. She called for her mother.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
“Let me just get the bike,” her mother, Teri, responded.
And just like that, Ewert and her mother were off on the road together, the morning sun barely risen. The teenager knew she needed to get her weekly race walk training in.
There was no changing that, she thought.
There is a question that has been floated many times before, and Taylor Ewert has heard it endlessly.
Will there come a point when you’ll have to give up the race walk?
Ewert is nice enough to give the notion a thought. She might even give you the answer you’re looking for. But behind those brown eyes you have to know something about Ewert, who holds three outdoor American Junior records in the 3K, 5K and 10K race walk and three more indoor American Junior records in the 1500m, mile and 3K.
She has a good-natured stubbornness. She won’t say it, but you can sense it. She’s never considered giving the race walk up. You don’t give up something you love.
But at no point over her career has that question been harder to answer.
As her future becomes clearer in distance running, the line will blur like never before. Take this cross country season, for example. The accolades have been adding up. Ewert went undefeated over the regular season, became just the third high school girl in Ohio to break 17 minutes in the 5K, won her first Division I state title and then qualified for both Nike Cross Nationals and Foot Locker Nationals.
Ewert’s future in distance running, as in race walking, seems just as bright.
But major, collegiate programs at the Division I level dole out scholarships to distance runners, not race walkers, and finding a school that will allow Ewert time to train in the discipline will be a long process.
That’s one reason why Ewert and her family are planning for a potential qualification to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in the race walk. Teri believes if Ewert qualifies, she can compete unencumbered and then focus her next four years in college at the events she was recruited for. She even has a file on her computer titled, “The Road to the Olympics.”
“She’s very willing and able,” Teri said. “We want to make her dreams come true.”
Give it a year, but Ewert could certainly be within striking distance ...pending a qualifier at the distance. Why would you doubt her at this point?
Even some of the best and up-and-coming competition at the USA level believe she’s in line for success.
“I definitely think she has the potential to be the future of American race walking and can be great,” said Lauren Harris, a graduate of Sachem East (NY) High School and a current athlete at Marist College, who was second overall to Ewert at the USA Junior Championships in the 10K race walk this past June.
Ewert’s the sixth fastest American female at the 10K distance ever, with her most recent performance in Finland at the U20 Championships, where she netted a time of 45:57.81. That was nearly a four minute improvement over her last effort. But the Olympic race walk also steps up to the 20K. And to qualify for the USA Trials, Ewert would largely have to take on an even bigger training load her senior year in high school, at a time when the dueling natures of running and race walking will have to go up against each other. More miles. More impact. More focus.
Even now, she’s dealing with it.
“I always hit a rough spot where I have to start picking up my race walk training, but I also have running training to do,” she said.
And yet, Ewert has always found a way. She always seems to be deliberately on task.
“What drives me is, once you see your hard work pay off, it’s rewarding. Every day there are goals I want to accomplish, but to see that goal out in the future and drive toward it, [that’s what motivates me]. “
Three days before GWOC marks the kind of day Ewert always looks forward to. Threshold work.
After a 10-minute run around the perimeter of Beavercreek High School, and then about five minutes of measured running, she heads to the track with her teammates, where she’ll finish off with a measured 2-mile threshold run.
Beavercreek cross country coach Howard Russ is holding a clipboard, looking at a series of numbers on a sheet of paper.
“I got this from Joe Vigil,” he says, referring to the revered guru of distance training. “This essentially tells me at any given moment where Taylor needs to be.”
The sheet of paper lays out the crux of Ewert’s threshold workout, which should be in the ballpark of 85-percent of her maximum effort for 2-miles.
Ewert’s level is currently the sheet’s fourth tier, based around a projected 4:45-4:50 mile time, and she will need to go approximately 84 seconds per lap to execute on a proper workout. It’s no small feat, but Russ knows this is Taylor Ewert we’re talking about, the prized distance runner — he isn’t concerned.
“She knows what she needs to do,” he says.
But to make sure Ewert hits her splits, Russ will employ a tactic he’s often gone to over the last year or so. As an aside, he’s learned it’s also helped with team camaraderie.
“OK girls,” Russ tells a series of jayvee runners. “Run with Taylor, make sure she doesn’t overly push it. Keep it consistent!”
Years ago, when the Beavercreek coach first met Ewert, he learned quickly how dedicated she was to the process. In middle school, the young runner would ask for course maps in the days leading up to a meet, then would study them religiously. When big meets weren’t approaching, Russ knew Ewert would put all of her focus into workouts.
“Didn’t matter if it was 90 degrees or the wind was blowing,” he said, “every workout had to be perfect.”
Over time, Russ saw that dynamic change as Ewert dug even more into the physics of running. She realized it was more about the process leading up to a race, rather than the day itself, and eventually learned that every workout didn’t reveal some huge insight about her fitness. Variables and conditions made a huge difference.
The older she got, the more Ewert realized how progression was about tenure rather than immediacy. But Russ also knew that, deep down, the very core of this teenager believed in nailing a good workout. So here, today, he made sure she did.
At this point, Teri, who often seems like the team’s de facto physical therapist—she might help align a hip at practice or talk to one of her daughter’s teammates through a nagging pain—shows up as she often does—the family’s home is just a mile from the high school—and stands just outside the track behind some fencing. She opens up her phone’s stopwatch app and readies for her daughter’s first rep. This ritual of timing, which began years earlier as Ewert yearned for improvement, became a sticking point in their relationship.
Ewert takes off her shirt, revealing a black sports bra, and Russ clicks his watch. She’s off.
The effort is almost casual. Ewert, who’s cadence reveals a small knee drive reminiscent of her race walk, clicks off each lap looking easier than the last. Her arms and legs move in swift, unified motion.
“Her hips, the way she has to do her movements in the race walk, it’s made her stronger overall in the lower body,” Russ said. “When you come to cross country and steeple, they’re strength events. And she loves to make people hurt.”
Ewert hits her first mile on cue around 5:36, then starts to pick up the intensity a very small hair as a cameraman follows her around the track.
“She definitely inspires me every day,” Ewert’s junior teammate, Jodie Pierce said. “Every day I wake up and I get inspired by her and her love of motivation. She breathes the sport. Every single thing about her, it’s about the sport. And I love that. That’s one of my favorite things about her.”
Toward the end, with two laps to go, Ewert’s feeling it. The Beavercreek High School football team, which is practicing in the middle of the field, is glancing over as Ewert zooms around the corners, hits the straightaways in consistent motion.
By the last lap, Ewert tries to sprint past a cameraman following her around the track.
She hits the clock approximately in 11:10-11:11, about five seconds in front of her goal pace.
To understand Ewert is to know a very clear reality about the way she operates.
Off the track, she’s a lovable teammate and a good student. But on it? She’s a competitor who believes in her capacity to do things most others aren’t willing to do.
The beginnings of her career can be traced back to moments. At the age of 2, she got her first taste of running when her mother pushed her in a stroller around the local track. By age 5, Ewert was begging her parents to run with the local Yellow Springs track program, the one her older brother, Ben, had just joined. The coach even reached out, ‘How old is this girl?” only to realize she was too young to compete.
By 8, she had picked up race walking and was winning championships for her age group in USATF meets. Ewert took much joy in standing at the top of podiums. “As a kid, if your parents do something, you want to mimic that,” Ewert said.
Those experiences lit up her world, even if she didn’t quite understand what all the fuss was about with the race walk itself — a niche discipline that had often been overlooked and maligned by non-believers. Many athletes before her had even tried it, including former Ohio great Emily Infeld, now a professional runner. Most didn’t continue as they pursued greater heights in distance running.
“The reason why I’ve stuck with it since I was younger, the biggest reason was because I enjoyed it,” Ewert said. “I thought it was different. And I was good at it, too. What young kid doesn’t want to keep doing something they’re good at?”
By her eighth grade year, a pivotal moment took place in her life. She had played soccer and basketball growing up, had even loved figure skating. But after she endured a trimalleolar fracture of her left fibula bone in 2016 after training on the ice--she would need three screws in her foot--the moment came for Ewert to sit down and decide what she really wanted to do in high school. She eventually chose to focus on running, which set in motion a unique path that few have ever done before her.
“There are no gray lines in running,” Teri said. “It’s black or white. Either you’re up there and winning, or you’re not. Figure skating, it was sometimes subjective, whereas running, you know who is first and who you know who’s last.”
“We didn’t push it,” Brian added. “The strategy Teri and I applied was to let them find their own path.”
The championship race walker finally dug in on running. And in her freshman season, despite training on limited miles as her foot fully healed, she found good success. She placed third at Districts, was eighth at Regions and 13th at State.
She went on to finish 39th at the Nike Cross Midwest Region race, though at that point, many of her contemporaries in her graduating class across the country — names such as Katelyn Tuohy, London Culbreath and Katelynne Hart — had qualified for national events in their first year of cross country.
“[People] always looked at her, ‘She’s not fast enough,’” Teri remembers of negative comments. “She was told, ‘How does it feel to have middle schoolers running faster than you?’
“I think she was always viewed more as a race walker who ran on the side. And I always remember [Taylor] telling me, ‘I want to show them I can run, too.’”
While national success wasn’t immediate for Ewert in distance running, she was still an elite force in the race walk.
Her freshman season at Beavercreek High School saw her qualify for the Pan American Junior Games in the 10,000-meter race walk, doing so at the USA Championships in Sacramento. At 15, she was the youngest competitor in Lima, Peru, for the Americans, and she finished sixth overall in 50:01.00.
More importantly, though, was the fact that Ewert wore the USA jersey for the first time in her career. For a military family, that moment was significant.
“I did 21 years in the Air Force,” Brian said. “Any military member, the family is all in. You don’t get to choose the sacrifice, you don’t get a choice to go when you want to go. You go. …and to then be able to enjoy seeing her wear the colors and represent the country well, it meant something very special.”
That moment was big for another reason, too. It opened Ewert’s eyes as to what she could accomplish on an international stage.
“When I got older, I realized the potential I could have,” she said. “That’s something. What kid would pass that up?”
Which brings us to another crucial point: Ewert would like to become the first American athlete to race at an elite level in both the race walk and distance running — more specifically, in the steeplechase.
This indoor season, there has even been talk that Ewert could compete in the prestigious 1-mile race walk and the 1-mile run. The same potential exists at The Penn Relays, where Beavercreek has a chance to compete in the 4x800, and there’s a chance Ewert could even race the 10K race walk and steeple at the USA Junior Championships in 2019.
“I don’t think Taylor has to have an identity,” Russ said. “She doesn’t have to decide whether she’s a runner her or she’s a race walker. She’s kind of both.”
“I told her,” Russ said, ‘You’re showing kids in New York and other states that you can excel at a high level in running and race walking. You’re changing your sport.’”
The entire week leading up to the GWOC Championships had been hectic at Beavercreek High School for a lot of reasons, but Friday especially hit home because it was the final day of school before the big Homecoming dance.
Annual rituals peppered through the school all week, but Thursday took it to another level with the annual parade that evening and then Friday continued with a huge pep rally in the school’s two-story gymnasium.
It didn’t bother Ewert, who seemed to be as focused as ever. Weeks earlier, she had decided not to go to the dance, which was on the same day as GWOC, and instead planned a dinner date with her mom at a local restaurant.
After school, the girls team drove 40 minutes west to Northmont High School, the site of the conference championships, and once there, the team did their routine shake out.
Ewert bided her time around the course, chatting with teammates about classes and school work, though she made sure to take mental notes.
In truth, this had always been one of her very favorite things about the sport, the planning stage. And in fact, this wasn’t even her first time on the course. The day before, Ewert and her mother had driven out to the school and jogged on the terrain for the first time.
Since it was a new course, she noted the sections with grass, the others with mulch and dirt, and had figured out a plan for how to best attack it on Saturday.
The high school junior rarely spoke about her goals so openly to coaches or teammates, but once home, she would log her feelings in her training journal and had even tacked an index card on a bulletin board in her room titled, “2018 XC Goals.”
Earlier in the season, Ewert had started off on a tear, winning a huge meet in Kentucky, then another 5K in a career best and national-level time of 17:08.10 and then logged her third straight win at a Nike-sponsored event in Indiana.
It had marked the first time in her career where she had been winning, and doing so on such a big stage.
Her father, a former steeplechase athlete at Syracuse, watched all of this unfold, and he was amazed at the progression of his daughter.
“Winning is very fragile. It’s very difficult to do,” Brian said. “And when you can get wins, to me it’s a really big deal.
“To drive it hard in the middle miles, when you can’t see the finish yet, and to put your yourself in the position to win, there is a lot of discipline and a lot that goes inside your head to make that go.”
By the time the team was nearing the finish during their shakeout, Ewert had already broken off. There were a few things she needed to accomplish before race day.
She stopped just short of a series of trees, about 500 meters from the finish, and then, seemingly on command, sprinted 100 meters through a patch of grass, eyes focused on the space in front of her, arms jutting furiously back and forth.
Her teammates, still about 60 seconds behind, trailed back, though Ewert remained focused. Once again she sprinted, this time around a curve, and then once more, leading on to the track, which was the final 350 meters of the race on Saturday.
And then one final time she sprinted, this time imagining all the things she wished to see the next day: How the air tasted, the numbness of the race’s last seconds, the crowd’s cheer, the numbers on the clock.
The planning was almost over.
There’s no single workout that has made Ewert the runner she is today. Her parents believe this, Russ believes this, and Ewert likely feels that way, too.
But without a constant, drilled-in work ethic over these last few years, it might not have come, either. There’s a key difference in what sets most athletes apart, and that’s in the details. Easy enough to ascribe to but less so to actually execute, these are the traits that few possess though which ultimately make the biggest difference.
For runners, these small details are like tidal waves. They make your performances crest and fall. Eating right, hydrating enough, activating the muscles and then training and cooling down. Without these details, workouts might not be as successful. Races too. Her parents could tell her to keep a journal, but Ewert actually had to do it.
She has employed these small variables like clockwork. It’s been an every day routine. And in her third cross country season, the fruits of her labor were truly starting to show.
Ewert has been at the top of her state in cross country for the entire season, and she’s been on the national radar since the beginning, ranked among the top runners in the country
“For me, I’ve seen where I am without the details,” Ewert said, “and I wasn’t satisfied. Reading about it and getting interested and learning. Then you see the details, you put in the work and you get the result. If you have the answers, then why wouldn’t you use them?”
These characteristics, however, come from more than just want and desire. Just as important have been the influences at home, such as her father and mother, and her older brother, Ben, a Division I athlete at the University of Louisville. Even her younger brother, Connor, has finally joined in on all the fun. He decided to dedicate himself to the sport this year, his sophomore season.
“When the girl sets her mind to something,” Russ said, “I know she’s going to do it.”
Perhaps no one moment encapsulates her dedication more, among a sea of accomplishments, than her 24-hour road trip last spring. And it was little surprise. “The Crazy Ewert Family” as Taylor likes to say, was all ‘bought in,’ too.
It might have seemed unrealistic for anyone else looking in on the potential scheduling conflict, but what Ewert saw was opportunity. Having qualified for New Balance Nationals Outdoor in the 2K steeplechase, she had yearned to compete against national competition in the event.
That motivation was inspired years earlier, when Brian had built a homemade steeple in the family’s basement, and it was reinforced as Ewert practiced over and over again in the backyard.
In figure skating, she had developed a natural ease with jumping, which meant that the transition to steeple came much easier. And though she had only competed in the event a few times previously, her fitness, coupled with her athleticism, was a natural fit.
But in order to compete in North Carolina at NBNO, the Ewert’s also had to agree to something else. The USA Junior Championships were the next day in Indianapolis.
If the 16-year-old wanted to qualify for the U20 Championships in the 10K race walk, she would have take a 10-hour, and nearly 600-mile road trip, to the championship site only hours after the steeple.
Ewert didn’t flinch.
“We said,‘Let’s take the risk.’”
The Ewert’s went to North Carolina and watched as their daughter rolled through the national championship race, winning in a personal best, and US No. 1 time of 6:38.79.
Afterward, they hopped into the family’s Honda Pilot and set off for Indianapolis. Taylor sat in the back, reclined the seats, and wore rapid-recovery boots the family had purchased for moments just like this.
“That night, we got there late,” Ewert said. “I remember having to get up early and eat my pre-race breakfast. The next thing I knew, I was on the track and doing a 10K. I have another 12 laps, so I have a lot of time to think about these last two days.”
Ewert responded with an American Junior record in the 10K, demolishing the former record by 24 seconds with a final effort of 49:07.52—which coincidentally also beat the top American male by over four minutes.
In that moment, Teri believed, it wasn’t just her daughter’s desire to win, but all the factors that led her there.
“Taylor is very competitive,” Teri said. “She’s been competitive since she was little. It helps her drive. But I don’t think you can be competitive without being detail oriented.”
GWOC’s race day began quietly, before the sun rose, and with a series of reminders like usual. Ewert clipped off each checkmark with ease, from the wake-up call, to a routine breakfast, to brushing her teeth.
Before long, there was the short commute to school, where the team met and then circled up, at the haste of Russ, who beamed during his usual pre-race speech, the anticipation rising as the team planned for a championship performance.
“Whatever happens today, I don’t care,” Russ said, his eyes glancing from one runner to the next. “We talked about the little things. What we have to control are the controllables, how we control our attitude. I want us doing the same things we always do.”
Ewert looked on, nodded. She knew in these moments that much of what was ahead had already been prepared for, trained against, logged, broken down and detailed. This day was a culmination.
And like a blur, it came and went: The commute to Northmont High School, a series of jayvee and varsity races on the course, some hobnobbing with teammates, pre-race stretching and the final jettisoning of nervous minds and legs.
Before long, it was time for the junior to race, for her moment to arrive.
Ewert gathered the Beavercreek girls together in a huddle, the unofficial captain of this squad, and offered a few parting words.
“If we all just get out and do our job, like we always do … we’ve had workouts harder than this. We’re there, we got this,” she said.
The pistol fired, and the race was off…
Brian, wearing Syracuse Orange along with a bright orange hat, jogged from one point to the next, watching his daughter cover massive swaths of ground. Teri, dark sunglasses shading her eyes from the sun, set up her camera lens for pivotal shots while also trying to multi-task with encouragement, ‘Go Taylor!’
Ewert likely didn’t hear any of it. She was mid-gear, comfortable and yet ruthless, hitting 4-wheel drive on a bumpy and curvy road and loving it.
She was so fast, the clock almost didn’t seem real at the finish, the junior putting down the most dominant performance in Ohio since 1981.
Ewert went 16:57.90, breaking 17 minutes for the first time in her career.
“I knew that last mile I wanted to be better about finishing stronger,” she said afterward. “So I just really focused on that last mile and finish, and I was able to go under.”
In some small way, it almost felt routine.