Before a competition, BYU runner Kenneth Rooks often prays and asks the Lord to use him as an instrument in His hands for good.
“Most of the time, it’s usually just small things,” he said.
Rooks felt the Lord was able to use him for good on larger scale on July 8 when he recovered from a fall early in the race to come back and win the 3,000-meter steeplechase crown at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon.
His performance grabbed national headlines and inspired many around the country.
Looking back on his remarkable race a month later, Rooks pointed out some powerful life lessons.
“Something I’ve learned a lot with my running is just accepting that it’s going to hurt, and it’s going to be hard. That’s normal, and it’s going to be OK. I will recover,” Rooks said. “I learned from this last race in particular, that if I fall, I can get up and I can still be successful. I think that has a lot of parallels with the gospel.”
Rooks reflected on his journey to becoming a national champion, including the setbacks and the triumphs, as a guest on the Church News podcast.
Kenneth Rooks’ high school years
It was not always Rooks’ dream to run for BYU, or even run competitively in college.
“If you had asked me my sophomore year in high school, I would have said ‘I don’t want to run in college,’” he said.
Rooks’ mindset changed during his junior year at College Place High School in Walla Walla, Washington, when he had a breakout track and field season. He realized he could compete at the collegiate level and possibly earn a scholarship.
His senior year was cut short by a hamstring injury that prevented him from competing at the state meet.
“That was hard for me,” he said.
One year at BYU
Rooks was drawn to universities in Utah because he wanted to be in an area surrounded by members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What set BYU apart was its civil engineering program. Rooks also felt at home with Ed Eyestone, BYU’s director of track and field, and the team.
When Rooks got to BYU, Eyestone thought the freshman would be good at the steeplechase event, a 3,000-meter, 7.5-lap race in which runners hurdle five barriers, including one with a water pit.
The coach was right. By the end of the season, Rooks had qualified for the NCAA national championships.
Following his freshman season, he stepped away for two years to serve a mission.
Kenneth Rooks’ mission years
Rooks served in the Uganda Kampala Mission from July 2019 until March 2020, when he and other missionaries were sent home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He was temporarily reassigned to the Utah Orem Mission for six months, then returned to Uganda to complete his mission.
These experiences taught Rooks valuable lessons in dealing with adversity.
“One of the things that I learned from my missionary service is it’s important to be focused on the positive and doing the best you can,” he said. “Having that mindset has helped me in my life.”
‘Choose to keep going’
Since his mission, Rooks has continued to improve as a runner and found success in the steeplechase. Shortly before winning his national championship, he finished his junior season by winning an NCAA championship. The 23-year-old will represent the U.S. at the world championships in Budapest, Hungary, Aug. 19-27.
Rooks said quitting crossed his mind when he fell during the second lap of his race at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. But he made the decision to keep going. It’s a lesson that is also relevant in life.
“It’s really important to choose to keep going,” he said. “I was able to accomplish a lot more than I thought that I would be able to just because I decided to get up and keep going. ... A lot of times before races, especially when I’m preparing, I remind myself that there is opposition in all things. This is natural. I need to just respond and try and do my best to choose what’s good.”
Rooks is grateful for how his Church membership has shaped his life.
“I’m so grateful for the Lord and His hand in my life,” he said. “I’m grateful for the opportunity I have to run. I love it. I’m grateful for the parallels that has with the gospel. And that’s probably part of the reason why I love learning so much is because it does have those parallels, and it’s helped me out in my life as well.”