Erica Birk-Jarvis may have been leading the pack of runners during the final third of last year’s West Coast Conference women’s cross-country championship race, but it wasn’t easy.
She couldn’t seem to shake one of her competitors who never seemed more than a shadow’s length away.
“That girl was running right behind me the entire race,” remembered the returned missionary and All-American distance runner.
Then, with about 1,000 meters to go, she heard a cry from some of her teammates and friends: “Do it for Jack!”
Birk-Jarvis didn’t accelerate to a world-record setting pace. Her weary legs didn’t become a blur like the Roadrunner in the cartoons.
“But I did notice I had a different attitude, and I started to separate (from my rival),” she said. “I felt like I had this extra strength because I was doing it for Jack and not just for myself anymore.”
Mothers everywhere can likely relate to that Birk-Jarvis “kick-it-in-gear” moment.
When you’re a mom, there are many things no longer done “just for myself.” Besides being one of the country’s top college distance runners, Birk-Jarvis also has a toddler son — Jack.
A few moments after hearing the “Do it for Jack!” cries, Birk-Jarvis broke the finish-line tape, becoming Brigham Young University’s first WCC women’s cross-country champion.
Being a collegiate athlete and a mother makes the lifelong Latter-day Saint something of an outlier. And she admits her sojourn to the top of college distance running — she claimed a pair of All-America honors at the recent NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships — did not follow a traditional route.
The Utah-born Birk-Jarvis inherited good running genes. Her mother, Nicole Wardrop, ran for BYU in the late 1980s.
“I have loved running since I was a little girl,” she told the Church News. “My mom would take me and my siblings on runs and we would ride our bikes alongside her.”
Birk-Jarvis would later set state high school records in cross-country and in several track events at Utah’s North Summit High School before being offered a spot on BYU’s respected cross-country and track and field teams.
But transitioning from high school to college athletics proved difficult. Everyone she lined up against at both intercollegiate meets and team trainings was also a top-flight runner. “I went from being the best to basically being nothing,” she said.
And for the first time in her young athletic career she was waylaid by serious injuries that often kept her from competing.
So amidst the frustrations of her freshman year, she prayed for clarity and direction. “One day I was out running and I felt an impression that I needed to go on a mission.”
The moment was right to take a break from running and dedicate herself completely to sharing the gospel. She accepted a call to the Ohio Cleveland Mission.
Full-time missionary service offers countless opportunities for personal growth and development. But it likely won’t shave much time off of, say, your personal best in the mile. But Sister Birk focused her attention on serving others and forgot about trying to maintain top distance-running fitness.
“Plus, it could get so cold in Ohio,” she said, laughing, ”I didn’t want to ask my companions to go out and run with me. So I just did what I could each day. I didn’t worry much about athletics.”
Missionary service affected her in ways far beyond distance running. It was a period of lasting personal growth. “I was so shy before my mission. It was so good for me to learn how to talk and how to relate to people.”
And as a bonus, missionary work ended up actually making her a better college athlete. “Being a missionary taught me a lot about dedication and hard work and keeping a positive attitude.”
As she labored in Ohio, she discovered that hardships and rejections need not be defining nor final. “And you also experience so much failure in running, but you have to keep racing and not give up.”
After returning home in 2015, she laced on her running shoes and once again began training seriously for Division 1 athletics. She also began dating and then married Tyler Jarvis, a former fellow missionary in Ohio.
Her athletic comeback was difficult. “It was so hard. I didn’t run at all during the last six months of my mission, so I was really starting from the bottom.”
But running was still a joy, even though it took her a full year to get back to top physical condition. She returned to the Cougar cross-country and track and field teams and soon began claiming All-America honors.
Then, in the middle of the 2017 competition season, Birk-Jarvis found out she was going to be a mother.
“It was sort of scary, we were not planning on having a baby at that time,” she said.
She experienced a mixture of emotions. She worried her athletic goals would never be fully realized. She didn’t know how a pregnancy would affect her post-delivery performance.
“I thought I was done with running for sure… But it also felt so good. I was so excited about having a baby.”
She continued to train hard through the first seven months of her pregnancy. A healthy boy arrived two days after Christmas, changing the Jarvis’s lives forever.
Tyler and Erica named him Jack.
After the delivery, Birk-Jarvis began walking every day. At eight weeks, her walks turned into runs. She discovered her competitive streak remained strong. But she approached her running goals with newfound maturity.
“Being a mother has given me more of an eternal perspective, which helps with racing. I know I’m sacrificing time away from my son, so I don’t want to just go to a race and hope I do well. … My performances are more meaningful to me.”
BYU associate head coach Diljeet Taylor said Birk-Jarvis has returned to competition “blessed with more talent than what she left with…. Her confidence is at an all-time high. It’s driven by how motivated she is. She understands that the sacrifices she makes are different from others because she has Jack at home.”
Birk-Jarvis is quick to add that she’s never alone. “My husband has been so much help, and I always know Jack is with family.”
The university has also been supportive, arranging for babysitters during practices. Meanwhile, her Cougar teammates have become doting “aunts” to little Jack. “They are all so nice to him and they love him,” she said.
Baby Jack is a regular at his mother’s races, attending all of BYU’s home races and several of the away meets.
Like many Latter-day Saint mothers, Birk-Jarvis prayerfully seeks balance in her busy life. She is a Division 1 athlete, a full-time student, a wife and a parent. But despite her crazy schedule, she agrees with her coach that being a mom makes her a better athlete.
“I get to come home to a cute little baby who loves me. It brings me so much joy and puts everything into perspective…. I would not be the same runner without Jack.”
Her trust in God has also deepened.
Having a child while competing in college athletics, she said, would not “have been my plan in a million years. But I know that God has an individual plan for all of us. My testimony of that has been strengthened through this experience.”