Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series profiling members of the USU track & field team that qualified for the NCAA Outdoor Championships.

As far as Cierra Simmons-Mecham is concerned, her time as a distance runner at Utah State “has been life-changing.”

“I could not have picked a better place and group of people to be with to learn fun lessons, hard lessons, late night growing-through-homework lessons,” she said. “I couldn’t have found better coaches that were better suited to my career and my needs as an athlete. ... And my teammates, as different as we all are, as many as I’ve had, I wouldn’t change a single thing.

“... It has been an incredible ride. It’s blown my mind, not anything that I ever would have expected, but new heights have been reached and it’s taught me to believe (in myself).”

Indeed, the senior has certainly blossomed during her time in Cache Valley. For starters, Simmons-Mecham is far and away the best women’s steeplechaser in USU history. The native of Soda Springs, Idaho, is headed to the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships for the second straight year in the 3,000-meter steeplechaser and will be gunning for first-team All-America honors for the second time in as many years.

To her credit, Simmons-Mecham has not only developed into a world class steeplechaser, but is also a well-rounded runner and has been an exemplary ambassador for USU’s track & field and cross country programs.

“I’ve said more than once that I think one of the biggest reasons for the jump in our women’s program ... has been in large part due to Cierra, just kind of the vibe that she brings to the team, the leadership that she’s brought to the team, having been captain for the past two years,” said Artie Gulden, USU’s head cross country coach. “It’s been remarkable just the way she carries herself, the way she treats people, how positive she is. It’s fantastic.”

The daughter of Larry and Kristen Simmons has been a solid performer ever since she arrived in Logan, but has sparkled during her last two seasons. Case in point: Simmons-Mecham earned the right to compete at the NCAA Cross Country Championships and outdoor nationals in track & field as a junior and senior.

Simmons-Mecham was a big part of an Aggie women’s cross country team that placed 14th at nationals in 2017 and was ranked as high as 12th in the country. It was the first time in program history the USU women and men qualified for nationals as a team.

The Lady Aggies didn’t experience a similar level of success in cross country this past season, but Simmons-Mecham punched her ticket to nationals as an individual by placing 17th in a loaded field at the NCAA Mountain Region Championships. The senior covered the 6-kilometer course in 20 minutes, 25 seconds en route to garnering all-region accolades.

Simmons-Mecham is the first USU woman to secure her spot to nationals in cross country and outdoor track in the same academic year since Tiffany Strickland 14 years ago.

“It means a lot,” Simmons-Mecham said when asked about this achievement. “... It’s hard to put it into words. You could say it means a lot, but just looking at the growth we’re trying to make in the program and being really close to both of my coaches and talking about where we want to go in the next few years ... I’ve really started seeing how we have all of this talent. It’s just the mindset that we need people to believe that they can do it.”

Simmons-Mecham has always been an avid competitor — she won a combined 12 letters in track, cross country, volleyball and basketball at Soda Springs High School — but that belief has developed throughout the years. The multiple time Academic All-Mountain West selection already defied the odds by earning a Division I scholarship out of a small high school.

The All-American’s progress in the steeplechase has been quite remarkable. Before Simmons-Mecham made her way to Logan, USU’s school record in the event was a 10:18.89. She has shaved a whopping 29 seconds off that and has broken the 10-minute barrier seven times as an Aggie.

Simmons-Mecham capped off her junior season by shattering her own record at the NCAA Championships with a blistering time of 9:49.33 — a time that would have qualified her for the U.S. Olympic Trials. She placed eighth in what was the deepest women’s steeplechase field in NCAA history.

The field is even deeper this spring. Simmons-Mecham is one of 19 women who have completed the race in less than 10 minutes in 2019. The senior was one of a record 12 who broke that barrier at the NCAA West Preliminary Championships last week in Sacramento, California.

Simmons-Mecham finished third in the second of three heats at West Prelims to secure an automatic bid to nationals.

“It was exciting being in the second heat,” she said. “I got to watch the first heat go out and be very competitive, and going into (my race) I knew that I just want to be in the top three, I don’t need to do anything crazy, I’ve ran these times before. But it’s fun to see that field improving as well because we know that we’re not making it just because we’re the only ones doing (this event). It’s a competitive field and it’s fun to kind of be in that club.”

The unassuming senior will compete in the semifinals of the steeplechase next Thursday in Austin, Texas. The field will be trimmed from 24 competitors to 12 for the finals on June 8.

Simmons-Mecham’s first goal is to finish in the top five of her heat, thus ensuring her spot in the finals. In order to do that, Soda Springs’ record-holder in the 1,600 (5:04.52) and 3,200 (11:02.89) feels like she’ll need “to run a controlled race, especially the first mile.”

The 2018 Mountain West steeplechase champion doesn’t know who’s in her heat yet, “but I know the girls well enough. We’ve all run against each other, so I know who will go out blazing and who will run a smart, controlled first mile and stuff like that. And so I’m ready to control the heat if I need to if nobody’s willing to go fast, but we really have no idea what will happen being in the Texas heat. People might want to run slow because we have some girls doubling back in the 5K.”

Although she will be facing a daunting field, Simmons-Mecham is a seasoned competitor in the event and is confident she has the mindset and experience needed to handle any challenge.

“I have definitely learned that you can’t be inside your own head,” said Simmons-Mecham, who is USU’s record-holder in the indoor 3,000 by nearly 14 seconds (9:23.86). “You know, if you have a bad hurdle, you have to get over it. It can’t make the next hurdle also be a bad one. You have to be confident enough that you can have a bad one, you can have a good one and it won’t impact the next one. ... Coach Gulden has told me several times, ‘You will not win (the race) in the first lap, but you sure can lose it in the first lap.’ So you have to be smart, you have to keep your head on straight, stay out of trouble and remember there’s seven-and-a-half laps.”

Gulden has thoroughly enjoyed being a part of his star distance runner’s journey at USU, and credited assistant coach Sarah Griggs for helping Simmons-Mecham become an stellar steeplechaser.

“With our steeplechasers, coach Sarah Griggs starts working with them technically on hurdling in January, and so they start doing hurdling drills in January as part of our indoor training to prepare them for outdoors,” he said. “And just as with everything, Cierra’s always willing to put in the work, and in hurdles drills and so forth, she’s there as long or longer than everybody else, putting in the work and working with coach Griggs on the technical aspect of the event because it’s huge. You know, if you can gain a step or two on every barrier or every water jump, which Cierra does on a lot of her competitors, it’s huge.”

Regardless of what happens next week, it’s already been an extremely memorable senior year for Simmons-Mecham in more ways than one. You see, she met future husband Scott Mecham during the outdoor season a year ago, and the two starting dating.

The couple had a rather interesting situation, though, because they were attending different universities. Scott Mecham just finished up a successful collegiate career as a hurdler at BYU. The Rigby, Idaho, native competed at the West Prelims in the 400 hurdles as a sophomore and junior, and came really close to qualifying for nationals in ’18.

Scott, who is still the Idaho 4A state meet record-holder in the 300 hurdles (37.82), and Cierra were married in December of last year. Scott had another semester left at BYU, so the couple has lived apart for the past five-plus months.

“It was hard living apart, doing the distance thing, but we enjoyed our time to the fullest that we could, and now we’re happy that we’ll both be in Logan,” Simmons-Mecham said.

Is there any USU-BYU rivalry between the two elite athletes?

“We try and be careful. The teasing definitely happens without trying at all, but there definitely is a line where I start getting mad or he starts getting touchy and we’re about ready to go out and race a mile here in a week to show who’s best,” Simmons-Mecham said with a chuckle.

And while her career as an Aggie is about to come to an end, Simmons-Mecham’s journey at USU is not over. She will remain in Logan during the 2019-2020 academic year to finish up her bachelor’s degree in nutrition science, and will serve as essentially a graduate assistant coach.

Additionally, Simmons-Mecham’s running career will not be over after next weekend.

“A lot of sacrifices have been made for the sport of running and I am excited to be able to move on to a point where other things have equal time and space in my life, but at the same time running will never go away,” said Simmons-Mecham, who served a Spanish-speaking mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Florida following her freshman year at USU. “And I have big plans and hopes and dreams after having learned that, hey, big and crazy things can happen, and I hope to come back and compete in the (U.S.) Olympic Trials next summer, so I’ll continue training.”

The well-spoken senior made it a point to thank a myriad of people for helping her evolve into an all-time Aggie great.

“There’s the joke that it takes a village to raise a child, but it takes a couple if not a few villages to raise a successful athlete that is happy and loving what they’re doing, and also progressing,” she said. “And it’s fun to see all of the quote-unquote villages that have been involved (in my life), whether it has been school friends, teammate friends, family all around that were willing to help and be excited for me, and be a part of it, even from afar.”

jturner@hjnews.com Twitter: hjtrebek

Jason Turner is a sports reporter for The Herald Journal. He can be reached at jturner@hjnews.com or 435-792-7237.