Erica Birk-Jarvis had a plan. In the spring of 2017, she was going to cap her breakout cross country and track seasons with an All-American performance in steeplechase. She had finished 34th -- good enough to be named an All-American -- in the fall 2016 cross country season. In the winter, she anchored the BYU distance medley relay to a fourth-place finish at the NCAA Indoor championships -- another All-American award.
But after a race during the outdoor season, something felt different. Immediately, Birk-Jarvis, 24, wondered if she might be pregnant. She asked her sister to go to the store to get her a pregnancy test. Sure enough, she and her husband Tyler were going to be parents.
Birk-Jarvis finished the remaining month of the outdoor season, only sharing the news of her pregnancy with her coach and trainers. She took the 2017-18 year off. Her son, Jack, arrived in January 2018.
She returned to competition this season -- somehow better than ever. She finished first at the West Coast Conference championships, and third at the NCAA Mountain Region Championships to earn a trip to the NCAA championships on Saturday. When she found out that she was pregnant, the last place she expected to be was running in NCAA championships less than a year after giving birth. She didn't know if she would be able to compete again after having Jack, but Birk-Jarvis loves to run. Now, she also runs for Jack.
Birk-Jarvis grew up in Coalville, Utah, with a mother who ran, and occasionally joined her on a jog. But she joined her high school cross country team because her older sister was doing it. At that point, running wasn't something she thought would be a big part of her life. "I just wanted to do what she was doing," Birk-Jarvis said in a phone interview.
The success she enjoyed in high school prompted Birk-Jarvis to reach out to then-BYU cross country coach Patrick Shane and inquire about following her mother's footsteps to run for the Cougars. She wasn't good enough yet, but he gave her some times. If there's one thing that motivates Birk-Jarvis, it's goals. She hit those times and then started running at BYU.
That's the thing Birk-Jarvis was used to -- everything going to plan. She would set a goal and meet it. She wanted to run at BYU, so she made it happen. She wanted to continue with her commitment to her faith, so she served on a mission to Cleveland. Having a child before she thought she was ready, however, was not exactly planned. And that was hard.
"Half of me was devastated," Birk-Jarvis said. "I was just thinking about how this wasn't the plan, and I was scared to tell my coach because I had goals and things I hadn't done yet in college."
When Birk-Jarvis told associate coach Diljeet Taylor she was pregnant, they both acknowledged the challenges ahead. But Taylor insisted that Birk-Jarvis delay her decision about her athletic future until after she had her son. "I felt like I needed to support her and say 'If you want to make this work, I'll be in it with you,'" Taylor said. "I wasn't sure how she was going to feel, but I knew she loved running."
While Birk-Jarvis sat out the season, she continued to run and work out as much as possible, before and after giving birth. She would run on the elliptical or spend time on a bike. Taylor sent Birk-Jarvis photos of her in uniform competing as motivation. The team held a baby shower for her. And as soon as she could, Birk-Jarvis returned to training full-time, logging 50 miles a week on top of her course load and waking up in the middle of the night to take care of Jack.
A lot was different. A lot was unplanned. Even with the added responsibility and lack of sleep, Birk-Jarvis began her 2018 cross country season running well, performing consistently better than she had before her pregnancy. "She gives us chills every race," Taylor said.
Birk-Jarvis now thinks Jack was perfectly timed, and that timing wasn't really up to her in the first place.
"My faith has been strengthened because this isn't the path I would have chosen for myself," Birk-Jarvis said. "God has put into my life the things that I needed that I didn't know I needed. I wouldn't have picked to have a baby when I had him, but I am so grateful because he's made me a better person and a better runner."
Birk-Jarvis' talent has always been evident to Taylor, even when it wasn't obvious. The 2016 season when Birk-Jarvis was an All-American was Taylor's first at BYU, and Birk-Jarvis wasn't the top runner to start the season. Even as her times improved, Birk-Jarvis sometimes struggled to embrace her ability.
"The racing didn't always match her workouts," Taylor said. "Her emotional and mental toughness hadn't caught up with her physical talent. Because she hadn't really done anything, she didn't believe that she belonged up there."
The residual anxiety and questions about her place among the top cross country runners in the nation have melted away with the birth of her son. Birk-Jarvis has returned to competition in a thunderous way, placing in the top four of every race she's run this year. "Because I'm making a sacrifice and not being with him, I just want to run for him," Birk-Jarvis said. "He gives me this extra strength."
"You don't come back from something like that unless you're really motivated, so I knew that she was going to have a different aura about her as an athlete," Taylor said. "I was expecting the same Erica I coached before but who had just gone through becoming a mom. And this is not the same Erica anymore."
Birk-Jarvis is the first to admit, however, that none of this would be possible without help. She takes two of her classes online to minimize the time she needs to take away from Jack. While Birk-Jarvis is on campus for her one non-online class on Tuesdays and Thursdays, her husband, Tyler, is at home with Jack. Her mother fills some of the other gaps, and if Birk-Jarvis needs some additional help while practice is going on, team managers or whoever has an extra hand steps up so she can focus on running.
"I've had a lot of help," Birk-Jarvis said. "My coach just wants to do everything that she can so that I can be able to run."
She may not have been planning to have Jack when she did, but now that he's here, there's no one who motivates her more out on the course.
"I just want him to be proud of me," she said.