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Former South runner Cannon has special day

On a late February day, Ethan Cannon ran two races and came up a winner in each.

The first was in the West Coast Conference men’s cross-country championships. That the fifth-year senior for defending national champion Brigham Young University even participated was, in itself, remarkable, given the number of times he’d been told he wasn’t good enough.

Hence, a win for the former South Medford High runner, a moral victory.

The man who failed to qualify for a single high school state championship meet in track or cross-country, who twice was cut from the BYU team, who persevered through a two-year school mission abroad and debilitating injuries, ran the best race of his career.

He placed 10th to make the all-conference first team as the Cougars captured their sixth straight championship and gained momentum for the national championships Monday in Stillwater, Oklahoma. An I-told-you-so moment, to be sure.

But that wasn’t even Cannon’s most meaningful race that day, Wednesday, Feb. 24, a date he and his wife, Sarah, will forever cherish.

While Ethan was in Las Vegas for the WCC meet, Sarah was back in Provo, Utah, about to give birth to their first child.

Claire Michelle Cannon, it turns out, is pretty quick, too. The baby decided to come a day earlier than expected, creating a second mad dash for Ethan Cannon.

He bolted the meet site for the airport a half hour after the race, missing the awards ceremony. He was still in his uniform, pulling off his bib and pins, as he approached airport security.

It was about an hour flight, and Cannon got to the hospital around 6 p.m., in time to witness his daughter’s birth four hours later.

“It was a pretty quick turnaround,” he said, “and obviously, my mind was in a million places.”

There’s no way, of course, for the couple to know why things timed out as they did.

“We go back and forth,” said Ethan. “Either (Claire) wanted to let me run my race before she came, or that we were racing each other and that I beat her before she came into the world. In either case, I’m glad it worked out.”

The day’s crucial stats:

Cannon’s time in the 8,000-meter championship race was 23 minutes, 44.5 seconds, a personal record.

Claire’s numbers were 7 pounds, 10 ounces, 19 inches, PRs across the board.

After tests showed everyone was doing well, Ethan got home about 1:30 a.m. for a much-needed night’s sleep.

“It was one of the longest days of my life,” he said, “and certainly one of the best days of my life, too.”

***

Cannon can’t explain why he’s on a Division I cross-country team, let alone the reigning national champion. There’s little in his background, other than an uncompromising will, or stubbornness, as evidence.

“There are so many times I should have quit,” said the 24-year-old, noting the litany of breakthrough moments he’s had to experience to arrive at his station today. “I think I just kind of have this feeling inside myself that I’m supposed to be a runner, and that’s kind of what I was destined to do.”

Some would say his aspirations far exceeded his talent. But what is talent? If fast legs, a strong heart and expansive lungs can contribute to talent, can’t belief and desire and work ethic? Is there a limit to the ingredients for success?

Cannon, who was a class valedictorian at South Medford, said athleticism didn’t run in his family. He can only surmise whatever gift he has is from God.

“I’m not maybe physically talented,” he said, “but I have this, almost silly at times, belief that I can be a good runner, so despite all the reasons why I should quit, I keep going. It’s actually worked out, and it’s wonderful.”

He considers South Medford to have been “a great formative place.” He ran for Josh Wallace, who is still the Panthers coach, was a team captain and garnered a few firsts throughout his prep career.

Still, he had lofty goals that were unmet.

“It was a great opportunity to learn to love running, and I became very passionate about it,” said Cannon. “And I made huge goals. I wanted to break the 4-minute mile in high school and things. Obviously, that never happened.”

The most poignant memories Cannon has of his high school career, he said, are not of him on podiums, medals dangling from his neck. Rather, they are of senior district meets in cross-country and track, of not advancing to state, moments of despair.

After his senior track season, he said, even his parents, Cyndi and Steve, “who have been the most supportive people along my journey that I could possibly hope for,” thought he was done.

But after a week or so had passed, Cannon came to a realization.

“I didn’t feel like I was done,” he said. “I felt like I had more to do, and as daunting as it was, I wanted to compete at the next level.”

Primarily a middle-distance runner at South Medford, focusing on the 800 and 1,500 meters in track, Cannon ramped up his training mileage over the ensuing summer and walked on at BYU.

As heartwarming as a rising-of-the-phoenix storyline would be, of a rebirth, that’s not how it played out.

Cannon was cut from the team after being allowed to try out. He landed on the school’s “farm” team, a group of like-minded runners who had yet to develop sufficiently to contribute for the Cougars.

Late bloomers in distance running are not rare. It’s a sport that requires an exorbitant amount of miles to build strength and stamina. Cannon typically does 80 miles a week, he said, and has gone as high as 95.

Ed Eyestone has seen it often enough. He’s in his 21st year as the BYU coach and knows full well that members of the farm team are not to be forever dismissed. Every year or two, one cracks the varsity roster, he said.

“I’ve had walk-ons come out and make the Olympic team as well,” said Eyestone.

He and his staff expend energy and resources recruiting the best runners in the country, and rightly so. The Cougars are ranked No. 1 nationally. For perspective, they’re well in front of the top Pac-12 Conference schools: No. 9 Washington, No. 10 Oregon, No. 12 Stanford, the conference champion.

But there are athletes who didn’t fulfill their promise in high school and still arrive on campus hoping to run.

“Ethan Cannon would be in that category,” said Eyestone.

Cannon’s desire to make the Cougars’ roster never waned.

After being axed his freshman year, he served a two-year mission in Italy and didn’t train while overseas. He was in “terrible” shape, he said, when he returned to school as a sophomore and attempted to walk on again, only to be cut again.

Soon after, he developed an Achilles tendon injury that lasted about a year.

Finally, in 2019, things began to fall Cannon’s way. He married in August, then tried out for the team two weeks later and made it.

As a junior, he competed in one meet, the Bill Dellinger Invitational in Eugene, and placed 60th, the 12th BYU runner across the finish line.

Then came this, his senior season, stunted by COVID-19 but still an opportunity for Cannon to grow.

“He’s had a breakthrough season this year, quite frankly,” said Eyestone. “He’s been Mr. Consistency.”

With virus concerns in place, Cannon trained mostly by himself into the fall. He missed the team’s first meet, then began racking up breakthrough performances.

He placed seventh in a dual meet against Weber State, aiding a one-point team victory as the Cougars rested some of their All-Americans.

“That was a really nice step for him,” said Eyestone. “There’s some relevance that comes when you’re in the hunt, not just making the team but winning praise by helping win the meet.”

In a Las Vegas meet, he was entered in the “B” race and won it by out-kicking a national track qualifier from 2019.

A couple weeks later, he dipped under 14 minutes in a 5,000-meter race at Washington, posting a time of 13:59.58. At nationals, there will be 40 All-Americans honored, and many of them won’t have a sub-14-minute 5K, said Eyestone.

Then came the WCC meet, where he picked off a couple Portland runners in the final 400 meters to accomplish his goal of placing in the top 10. It’s his best race as a Cougar, a distinction he hopes is short-lived.

“Hopefully, it won’t be after next week,” said Cannon.

***

Cannon, who will graduate in April with a degree in exercise and wellness — then will pursue a masters in the health field — drew inspiration from his daughter even before she was born. His best races have come since Sarah learned she was pregnant last summer.

“I don’t know if it’s just a coincidence or what,” he said, “but I really feel motivated by my daughter. I think about her and I want to make her proud. I’ve kind of used that almost as a fuel. This is my special story; it’s something that makes me unique, and I want to use that extra motivation to do a good job in the race.”

The Cougars could use it.

The narrative for BYU has been that it has four top-flight runners, but five count toward the team score.

The WCC meet, said Cannon, “showcased a little more depth than maybe people thought we had.”

BYU’s stiffest challenge is expected to come from Northern Arizona, which claimed three straight crowns before the Cougars unseated the Lumberjacks with their first in 2019.

NAU is ranked second and Arkansas third entering Monday’s race.

Cannon’s goal is to finish in the top 60. He’s not ruling out the top 40 and an All-American designation.

Thinking back to the WCC meet, when Cannon learned before the race his wife was going into labor and managed to clear his mind enough to forge a strong showing, Eyestone doesn’t believe this moment will be too big for him.

“He’s unflappable,” said the coach. “That kind of describes his competitive nature. That’s why I think he’s a safe person to put in there. You know he’s not going to blow up.”

The championship presents challenges. At 10,000 meters, it’s longer than regular-season competitions, and it’s a hilly course.

“I hope that plays to my strengths,” said Cannon, whose style is to start out conservatively, then grind to the finish, picking off tiring foes. “I’ve run Roxy Ann (Peak, on the outskirts of Medford) more times than I can count, so I’m going to channel that as I run on the hills.”

He’ll channel Roxy Ann.

He’ll channel Claire Michelle.

In the end, he’ll write his own special story.

Reach sports editor Tim Trower at 541-776-4479 or ttrower@rosebudmedia.com.

Ethan Cannon places 10th at the West Coast Conference championships, hours before he became a father for the first time.
Feb. 24 was a big day for Sarah, Ethan and baby Claire Cannon.