At the Stanford Invitational on March 31, the University of Utah’s Emily Venters won the 10,000m in 31:48.35, the sixth-fastest women’s time ever in the NCAA. Venters, 23, who is in her sixth year of college and final season of eligibility, plans to continue running professionally, which is something that was hard for her to imagine two years ago.
“I literally almost quit running altogether,” Venters told Fast Women. “I never would have guessed that I would be back in this position with a chance to run professionally. It’s surreal that I’m getting the chance to live out my dream, and I’m just really grateful for it.”
Venters began her collegiate career at Boise State, where she did well academically and athletically, but she was suffering from an eating disorder. During her second year at the school, she learned that she had poor bone density. A specialist put her on birth control pills, which changed her body quickly, made her “really mean” and unhappy, and did nothing to address the underlying problem. So she stopped taking the pills and began working with a psychologist and dietitian to get healthier.
Venters decided to transfer to the University of Colorado for her third year. Though she was eating better, years of underfueling began to catch up to her. Combined with the intense workouts at CU, Venters entered an injury cycle. During her time at CU, she suffered five bone stress injuries. “My two years there were pretty much hell,” she said.
Venters cherishes the friends she made at CU, because they stuck with her through some of her darkest days. “There were some times when I didn’t even know if I’d come out of it,” she said. “But there was always something in me, too, that knew that if I just changed my environment, I could come out on the other side, even though so many people doubted it.”
The second time Venters entered the transfer portal, heading into her fifth year of college, she had far fewer offers from NCAA coaches, but the University of Utah was willing to take a chance on her. Venters never visited the school and didn’t know anyone on the team, but she had heard through the grapevine that head coach Kyle Kepler was caring and nurturing, and that was all she needed to hear.
“It’s been the place I needed the whole time,” Venters said. “I wish I would have come here from the start, because Kep is just an amazing coach, and he truly cares about me as a person. I don’t think I have ever felt that from a coach.”
During her sixth year, with some consistent training behind her, Venters is running better than ever. In the fall, she was the runner-up at the Pac-12 Cross Country Championships before finishing 12th at the NCAA Championships. Indoors, she ran a 5,000m PR of 15:20.37 on the University of Washington’s oversized flat track and took fifth in the event at the NCAA Championships.
Venters has found that being a more well-rounded person has contributed to her success. “In a good way, I’m caring less,” Venters said. “I’ve found so many things outside of running that I enjoy doing, and I don’t really care what other people think.” It’s such a change that sometimes Venters barely recognizes herself. “I allow myself to do a lot more, and I genuinely think that that’s been the key for me. I go for my run and then I don’t think about it again until I go running again the next day.”
Against the odds, Venters has gotten her bone density up; it’s now above average. And she hasn’t missed a period in three years.
Venters has ambitious goals for her final season in the NCAA, but she’s also looking at the bigger picture. “I’m trying to remember to enjoy being around a team like this, and being in this environment, because I’m never going to get this back again,” she said.
College wasn’t the first time Venters faced health challenges. Just after her third birthday, she was diagnosed with leukemia. She doesn’t remember many details about that time, she just knows it was really hard on her parents. Venters was in and out of hospitals and undergoing chemotherapy for about two years. She goes in for annual checkups now, but she has had no lasting complications.
As Venters gets ready to embark on a professional running career, she’s keeping the lessons she learned as a collegian in mind. And she knows that there’s so much more to life than running.
“I’ve told myself I’m going to give [professional running] a go and if for some reason it becomes more work than fun for me at some point, I owe it to myself to not continue,” she said.
Venters doesn’t want running to become her whole identity again, and she knows that can be a tough balance to strike when it’s a job. “I’m working really hard with people to figure out a good place for me to go and be where I can still be the Emily who I am right now,” she said, “but as a professional runner.”