2021 marked a ‘season’ of lofty highs for Latter-day Saint athletes

For Latter-day Saint athletes, 2021 was a gold medal-worthy year.

Over the past 12 months, members claimed, yes, Olympic medals, national college championships, National Basketball Association title rings and a host of other athletic honors.

Here are a few 2021 highlights from a monumental year for Latter-day Saint sportswomen and sportsmen.

Distance runners

2021 was magical for Latter-day Saint collegiate distance runners.

On March 12, Brigham Young University’s Courtney Wayment ran the victory-sealing anchor leg for the Cougars in the distance medley relay race at the 2021 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships. She was joined atop the podium by her medley teammates — senior Olivia Hoj Simister, senior Alena Ellsworth and senior Lauren Ellsworth-Barnes.

A day later, Wayment won the 3,000-meter individual race.

On March 15, BYU won the 2020 NCAA women’s cross-country championship in Stillwater, Oklahoma. (The race was pushed back into 2021 because of COVID-19.) Three Cougar runners — Anna Camp-Bennett, Aubrey Frentheway and Whittni Orton — placed in the top 17.

Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon, right, and Sister Michelle D. Craig, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency, left, host the BYU women's cross-country squad and track and field distance medley relay team in the Relief Society Building on Temple Square in April 2021. The Cougar squad had recently won a national championship.
Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon, right, and Sister Michelle D. Craig, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency, left, host the BYU women’s cross-country squad and track and field distance medley relay team in the Relief Society Building on Temple Square in April 2021. The Cougar squad had recently won a national championship. Credit: BYU Photo

Two fellow Latter-day Saint runners — Oklahoma State University’s Taylor Roe and Weber State University’s Summer Allen — finished the race in second and seventh places, respectively.

In the men’s national cross-country race, BYU’s Conner Mantz broke the tape to claim top honors.

A returned missionary, Mantz would successfully defend his national title on Nov. 20 at the 2021 NCAA cross-country championships. Teammate Whittni Orton, won the 2021 individual women’s cross-country title.

Bob Turner

On April 11, sports fans worldwide were introduced to returned missionary Bob Turner.

The silver-haired Utahn performed Japanese-English interpreting duties for 2021 Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama of Japan.

Turner, who served a mission in Japan decades earlier, has served as Matsuyama’s handler and interpreter for several years. But the stake Young Men leader’s language skills were on full display for a global audience after his close friend won one of golf’s most revered tournaments, at Augusta, Georgia.

Bob Turner, right, a returned missionary who served in Japan, interprets for Hideki Matsuyama, of Japan, who won the Masters golf tournament on Sunday, April 11, 2021, in Augusta, Georgia.
Bob Turner, right, a returned missionary who served in Japan, interprets for Hideki Matsuyama, of Japan, who won the Masters golf tournament on Sunday, April 11, 2021, in Augusta, Georgia. Credit: Screenshot

Zach Wilson

Following a stellar career at BYU, quarterback Zach Wilson was selected by the New York Jets with the No. 2 pick of the 2021 National Football League draft on April 29.

Wilson led the Cougars to a 11-1 record in 2020, with the Cougars finishing the season ranked No. 11 in the final Associated Press poll.

The Draper, Utah, native was named the Jets’ starting quarterback during his 2021 NFL rookie season.

Sam Merrill and Elijah Bryant

A pair of Latter-day Saint hoopsters, Sam Merrill and Elijah Bryant, claimed championship rings with the 2020-2021 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks on July 20.

The Bucks defeated the Phoenix Suns in six games.

A returned missionary who served in Nicaragua, Merrill was a rookie in the pro ranks last season after graduating from Utah State University.

Milwaukee Bucks’ Sam Merrill tries to steal the ball from Charlotte Hornets’ P.J. Washington during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, April 9, 2021, in Milwaukee. Merrill was a member of the Bucks’ 2021 NBA championship squad.
Milwaukee Bucks’ Sam Merrill tries to steal the ball from Charlotte Hornets’ P.J. Washington during the first half of an NBA basketball game Friday, April 9, 2021, in Milwaukee. Merrill was a member of the Bucks’ 2021 NBA championship squad. Credit: Morry Gash, Associated Press

Bryant, a BYU product, joined the Bucks during their championship season after playing in Israel.

The two attended Church together the day after the Bucks won a pivotal playoff series against Miami, thrilling Milwaukee-area members and Bucks fans.

Olympic athletes

Gymnast MyKayla Skinner’s Olympic medal-winning performance in the women’s vault on Aug. 1 was one of the viral moments of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

Just a day before the vault final, Skinner was not expected to participate in the event. But when Team USA teammate Simone Biles withdrew, a spot opened up for the former University of Utah gymnast.

Skinner’s two-vault performance was enough to claim the silver medal. Her ascent up the Olympic medal podium doubled as a story of persistence after she narrowly missed out on roster spots at earlier Olympic Games.

In this combination photo, Latter-day Saint athletes MyKayla Skinner, right, of the United States, poses after winning the silver medal for the vault during the artistic gymnastics women's apparatus final, and New Zealand's Valerie Adams, right, poses with her bronze medal on women's shot put at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan.
In this combination photo, Latter-day Saint athletes MyKayla Skinner, right, of the United States, poses after winning the silver medal for the vault during the artistic gymnastics women’s apparatus final, and New Zealand’s Valerie Adams, right, poses with her bronze medal on women’s shot put at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Sunday, Aug. 1, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan. Credit: Natacha Pisarenko and Francisco Seco, Associated Press

Latter-day Saint shot putter Valerie Adams of New Zealand claimed the bronze medal in Tokyo after winning silver in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Other Olympic medal winners connected to the Church included Semi Radradra from Fiji’s gold medal-winning rugby team; swimmer Rhyan Elizabeth White, who helped Team USA earn a silver in the 4×100-meter medley; and bronze-winning weightlifter Sarah Robles of the United States.

Paralympic athletes

Several Latter-day Saint athletes also claimed medals at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo in September.

Ireland’s Jason Smyth won gold in the 100-meter T13 division (for visual impairments). Tupou Neiufi, a member from New Zealand, also claimed gold in the 100-meter backstroke S8 (for physical impairments). 

And Josh Wheeler of the United States won a silver medal with his team in the wheelchair rugby competition.

Tony Finau

Latter-day Saint Tony Finau added an unforgettable chapter to his golf career Sept. 24-26 as a member of the 2021 Ryder Cup champions.

Team USA's Tony Finau, a Latter-day Saint, hits on the fifth hole during a four-ball match the Ryder Cup at the Whistling Straits Golf Course Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Sheboygan, Wis.
Team USA’s Tony Finau, a Latter-day Saint, hits on the fifth hole during a four-ball match the Ryder Cup at the Whistling Straits Golf Course Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021, in Sheboygan, Wis. Credit: Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press

Finau and his teammates from the United States soundly defeated their European rivals 19-9 at Wisconsin’s Whistling Straits golf course. The 2021 competition marked his second career appearance for Team USA in the Ryder Cup.

The Utah native’s 2021 season on the PGA tour included a win in The Northern Trust tournament on Aug. 24 at New Jersey’s Liberty National Golf Club.

Ashley Hatch

On Nov. 20, Ashley Hatch, a ward Young Women adviser, helped her team, the Washington Spirit, with the National Women’s Soccer League championship over the Chicago Red Stars.

Hatch was awarded the NWSL’s 2021 Golden Boot after leading the league — one of the world’s best — with 10 goals. She later finished fourth in the voting for league Most Valuable Player honors, was named to the 2021 Best XI First Team and scored a goal competing with the U.S. Women’s National Team in Australia.

BYU women’s soccer team

BYU’s renowned women’s soccer team realized unprecedented heights in 2021 by reaching the NCAA national championship game in Santa Clara, California.

The Cougars played Florida State University to a scoreless tie before losing 4 goals to 3 in a penalty-kick team shootout. The women’s final was originally scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 5 — but the game was moved back a day to Monday, Dec. 6, to accommodate BYU’s “No Sabbath Day play” policy.

BYU midfielder Mikayla Colohan was named Top Drawer’s 2021 National Player of the Year, while teammate Cameron Tucker was selected to Top Drawer Soccer’s Best XI Second Team. Both Colohan and Tucker are moving on to the professional ranks.

Brigham Young Cougars midfielder Mikayla Colohan competes during the NCAA national soccer championship at Stevens Stadium at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021.
Brigham Young Cougars midfielder Mikayla Colohan competes during the NCAA national soccer championship at Stevens Stadium at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California, on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Meanwhile, the BYU women’s soccer coaching staff was named the 2021 NCAA DI Women’s Staff of the Year by the United Soccer Coaches.

Five BYU players from the 2021 nationals finals squad — Josie Shepherd, Jacey Wood, Addie Gardner, Kelsey Hoopes and Caroline Stringfellow — are taking a hiatus from soccer to serve full-time missions.

Football teams

BYU’s football team spent most of the 2021 season in the national rankings — finishing with a 10-3 record that included five wins over Pac-12 opponents.

The University of Utah football team, with approximately two dozen returned missionaries, won its first Pac-12 championship in 2021 and qualified for the Jan. 1, 2022, Rose Bowl.

And Utah State University, another public school with a sizable number of Latter-day Saint players, won the 2021 Mountain West Conference title. Aggie defensive end Nick Heninger, a returned missionary, was the Defensive Most Valuable Player in the Dec. 18 Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl in Inglewood, California.