When No. 2-ranked BYU lines up for the start of Saturday’s NCAA Cross Country Championships in Stillwater, Oklahoma, the Cougars will pin their hopes on a guitar-playing, straight-A, straight-laced, tenacious three-time All-American and returned missionary named Casey Clinger.
Clinger has finished 24th, 13th and eighth in the last three NCAA championships, respectively, and seems poised to take another step forward this year, but he is also something of a mystery. He ran only three races this season due to a sore hip and a delayed start to the season because he competed on the track late into the summer. He finished sixth in last week’s NCAA Mountain West Regional, but his coach had told him not to extend himself and to save his legs for nationals.
“I’m running to compete,” is all Casey will say about Saturday’s race (his father Steve says, “He’s a crazy-competitive kid, but he won’t talk about himself.”)
If there is something that sets Clinger apart from his rivals, it’s his range. Last spring, he became only the second person ever to run a sub four-minute mile in Utah, 3:59.02, a feat made more difficult by the state’s thinner high-elevation air.
He has actually run faster — his time of 3:38.16 at 1,500 meters in the 2021 West Coast Relays (Fresno, California), converts to a mile time of about 3:54-3:55. So Clinger has sub-four miler speed, but also competes well beyond the middle distances. He covered 5,000 meters in 13:23.33 — a school record in a program that has produced Olympians Doug Padilla, Henry Marsh, Paul Cummings, Ed Eyestone and Jason Pyrah — and 28:16.15 for 10,000 meters, the seventh fastest in school history.
“I’ve enjoyed running a variety of distances, from the mile to the longer stuff,” says Clinger. “My mindset is not to specialize, to keep a good range.”
“He has amazing range,” says Ed Eyestone, BYU’s track and cross-country head coach. “He’s super consistent in cross-country. He hasn’t done as well as he wanted on the track yet, which is surprising. He’s run fast times, but things have gotten crazy in terms of time.”
Clinger has earned three first-team All-America certificates in cross-country (the races are 10,000 meters) and three second-team certificates in track. He was 10th and 12th in the 5,000 and 10,000, respectively, at last spring’s NCAA track championships.
C is for consistency — and competitor
“He’s unflappable and he’s consistent,” says Eyestone. “Consistency is the mark of a true competitor.”
Eyestone makes his point with this story: As a true freshman, Clinger chose to enter BYU for one semester rather than leave on a church mission immediately after high school. “He said he wanted to help the team,” says Eyestone. It was a good team, one that included All-Americans Rory Linkletter and future NCAA champion Clayton Young, but Clinger worked his way into BYU’s top seven anyway and competed in the NCAA cross-country championships. “A couple of the guys laid eggs,” says Eyestone. “They had bad days.” Clinger, just months out of high school, was the team’s top finisher and earned All-America honors in 24th place, helping BYU finish third in the team standings.
“His mom would always say she never met a person so tenacious as Casey. He taught himself to ride a bike when he was 3 years old because his older brothers were riding bikes.” — Steve Casey
On a per-capita basis, Utah might produce more distance-running talent than any state in the country. Eyestone’s top seven runners attended high schools that are within 30 minutes of BYU. Clinger graduated from American Fork High, which, under coach Tim Mostert, features a national-class distance running program. The school has won 10 state cross-country championships and sent more runners to D1 programs than Mostert can count (three of BYU’s eight fastest 10K runners are from American Fork).
Clinger is the middle of five boys, all given names that start with C — Chance, Chase, Casey, Carson, Colby. Steve competed in high school football, basketball and track — “I didn’t want to run so I threw discus,” he says. Casey’s mother Tiffany was a ballerina who spent summers in Florida dancing with the Tampa Ballet. She chose to pursue an education rather than pursue a professional career out of high school and accepted a ballet scholarship to BYU. “Casey got his legs from his mother,” says Steve.
Steve continues, “His mom would always say she never met a person so tenacious as Casey. He taught himself to ride a bike when he was 3 years old because his older brothers were riding bikes.”
That tenaciousness showed up elsewhere. He graduated from high school with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average. He took up the guitar as a boy and today is a fine acoustic guitarist. The family formed a basement band with Chance and Casey on guitar, Chase on bass and Carson on drums (“Colby played with cars,” says Steve). They called themselves “Mama’s Boys,” and they played blues, John Mayer, Chili Peppers and Weezer.
Casey played club soccer as a boy, but he noticed that he was one of the fastest runners on the pitch, and he confirmed his talent each summer by winning his age group in the annual Strawberry Days 5K road race in Pleasant Grove. “He was a 12-year-old running a 5K and he was out to win it,” says Steve. “He was just crazy competitive.”
Each morning the Clingers saw a pack of A.F. distance runners run by their house en route to “the grinder,” — a steep 1.3-mile run in the foothills. The runners were given a T-shirt if they could cover the distance in nine minutes (Clinger would set the record years later). “You could probably be good at that,” Steve would tell his son as they watched the A.F. runners pass.
So long, soccer
When he reached ninth grade, Clinger dropped soccer and joined the American Fork cross-country team, rising before dawn for the team’s first run of the day and running again in the afternoon. “He hit fast times as a freshman and was staying up with the varsity,” says Mostert. “Our team had never had an all-state freshman until Casey did it. He was 13th in cross-country that year against a strong field.”
Clinger went on to become an eight-time state champion in cross-country and track. At the end of his junior year, he entered the prestigious Nike cross-country championships, which are held annually in California. Steve dangled a carrot in front of him — if he won the race, he told him, he would buy him a Martin guitar. Clinger, who had finished 71st as a freshman and eighth as a sophomore in this race, shocked everyone by winning the 2015 title (and got his new guitar).
“When he took the lead near the end of the race, they (TV commentators) didn’t know his name,” says Steve. “They were shuffling papers trying to find his name. It was an epic finish.”
A year later, Clinger won the race again, making him the only male ever to claim two wins in the race.
Best in the country
At the end of the 2016 season, he was named Gatorade National Athlete of the Year for cross-country. Gatorade sent a camera crew to follow Clinger around for a couple of days and conspired with his parents and local police to present the trophy to him. Clinger, as usual, left the house before dawn and was approaching the school when an American Fork policeman pulled him over and told him he had been speeding.
With the Gatorade crew filming, Clinger, looking shaken, got out of the car at the request of the officer and watched as the cop searched his vehicle. The officer retrieved a black backpack from the trunk and, turning to Clinger with a smile, he said, “So, Casey, this is actually the real reason I stopped you.” He pulled the Gatorade trophy out of the backpack and, as he presented it to Clinger, he said, “You’re the Gatorade boys national cross-country champion.”
“Oh my gosh, I had no clue!” Clinger said.
His parents, who had been watching all of this through a zoom lens from across the street, joined the scene and gave their son a congratulatory hug.
When he’s not training and racing, Clinger studies business management, watches a lot of volleyball matches (his wife Morgan is on the BYU team, along with two of her sisters), and plays guitar.
His prowess on guitar suits the team culture. Eyestone is a longtime guitarist himself, as are several of his runners. The coach invites his runners to bring their guitars on extended road trips for hotel jam sessions, and he organizes talent nights at the team camp and other gatherings (in the video seen earlier in the story, Clinger, who favors blues, rock, pop, John Mayer and Stevie Ray Vaughan, can be seen performing “Song for George” by Eric Johnson at the team’s camp in August).
Conner Mantz, the team’s now-graduated 2020 and 2021 NCAA cross-country champ and another advanced guitarist, joined Eyestone and Clinger to perform the Neil Young classic “Long May You Run” (what else?) at a Cougar Club function. Eyestone played harmonica and guitar and Clinger played lead.
In trying to capture the essence of Clinger, Eyestone says, “On top of everything else, he is just the quintessential good guy and hard worker. As team captain he’s cognizant of the other guys and their personalities.” Eyestone says there have been occasions when Clinger has approached him before a workout and told him, “I could bust this (run fast), but I don’t want to break the synergy of the team. How can I avoid that?” Says Eyestone, “He’s very considerate of teammates.”
This weekend, Clinger and his teammates will perform again on the NCAA cross-country stage in which they have had much success. The BYU men’s team won the 2019 NCAA championships and the women won in 2020, with Mantz winning the last two individual titles and teammate Whittni Orton winning the last women’s race. Three BYU men have won a total of four championships — Eyestone in 1984, Josh Rohatinsky in 2006 and Mantz in 2020 and 2021. Clinger, who has another year of eligibility ahead of him, hopes to add his name to the list on Saturday.