By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — For Bryan Fetzer, Peyton Chaney will always hold a singular distinction. She was his first recruit as the University of Virginia’s director of track & field and cross country.

Chaney committed to Virginia in early 2012. Little then did Fetzer realize what an impact Chaney, a sprinter from the St. Louis suburb of Belleville, Ill., would make at the University.

“She’s exactly what I want our program to be like,” Fetzer said Wednesday at Lannigan Field. “She’s exactly what I want our student-athletes to be like.”

He laughed. “So the first one was a charm.”

When UVA hired Fetzer in December 2011, Chaney was a senior at Nerinx Hall High, a Catholic all-girls school. He had contacts with the St. Louis Express Track Club, for which Chaney competed, and they recommended that he look at her.

Chaney was a young lady of high character, an excellent student from a good family, Fetzer was told, and she “seemed to be everything we wanted,” he said.

Even so, the Cavaliers’ chances of landing Chaney did not appear promising. She had already taken three official visits — to Kansas, Mississippi and Missouri — and UVA “was not on my radar,” Chaney said this week.

When she learned from her parents that Fetzer wanted her to visit, “I was like, `What is Virginia? What is UVA?’ ” Chaney recalled, smiling. “I had no idea, but I also wanted to keep my options open. And then once I started telling people I was going to UVA for my visit, they were like, `Wow! It’s a great school. Very prestigious. You should look more into it.’ ”

Chaney fell hard for UVA during a visit in which she stayed with some of the track team’s older members.

“When we were just hanging out, it felt like they were all connected,” she said. “It felt like a family, and I liked that. And going around Grounds, I just thought that the place was beautiful. And it had the academics, and I knew that Fetzer was starting to build a program, and I wanted to be a part of that.”

And so she took what Fetzer called “a complete leap of faith,” choosing Virginia over more successful programs, including Kansas.

Chaney has thrived at UVA. Not only has she become one of the ACC’s top sprinters, she’ll graduate next month with a double major in government and sociology. And then?

“My next stop is law school,” Chaney said. She’s been accepted at Emory University in Atlanta and is still waiting to hear from her top choice, Howard University in Washington, D.C.

For years, Chaney said, she had dreamed of becoming a lawyer, “and then once I got here, I realized that being an advocate is something I want to do.”

In February, Chaney was among the 43 student-athletes selected for the ACC’s Weaver-James-Corrigan Award, a postgraduate scholarship worth $5,000. The recipients, the ACC said, have “performed with distinction in both the classroom and their respective sports, while demonstrating exemplary conduct in the community.”

After concentrating on academic and athletics in her first year at UVA, Chaney became more active around Grounds. Since her second year, she’s been involved with Fashion for a Cause, a non-profit charitable organization. She’s also a peer advisor in UVA’s Office of African-American Affairs — Chaney mentors four first-year students, including her track teammate Ciara Leonard — and a Class of 2016 trustee.

“I like to stay busy,” Chaney said.

As a mentor, Chaney said, she’s made it her mission to let other UVA students know, especially athletes, that it’s fine to “focus on your sport, focus on your academics first, but there’s also other things that you can get involved with. So I share that to the athletes, share that to the non-athletes and tell them, `You can be involved in whatever you want to be if you put your heart and mind in it.’ ”

Chaney, who was born in Indianapolis, grew up in a family that stressed education. She was expected to take her studies seriously, “and that’s something I’ve always done,” she said. “I love to read. I was always a reader.”

Sports also played a central role in the Chaneys’ lives. Peyton’s mother and father ran track and wrestled, respectively, at Indiana State, and her brother ran track and played football at the University of Iowa.

“It’s a family of athletes that has a lot of discipline and a lot of structure to it,” Fetzer said. “It’s awesome.”

On the track, Chaney has run the second-fastest indoor 200-meter dash and the third-fastest 60-meter dash in program history. She’s also been part of two relay teams (4×100 outdoor and 4×400 indoor) that hold UVA records. At the ACC indoor championships this winter, she placed third in the 60-meter dash and sixth in the 200-meter dash.

Success did not come, however, immediately for her at UVA. In high school, Chaney was a state champion and the fastest runner on her team, but “I was running on pure talent,” she said.

At UVA, Chaney found herself competing with and against similarly talented athletes, a new experience for her.

“Her first year, she struggled, like most freshmen struggle, with a variety of freshman issues,” Fetzer said.

Among other things, Chaney’s technique needed refining. She had “to learn to run properly,” Chaney said, “because I was kind of `street racing,’ as Fetzer used to call it. So I had to learn the fundamentals, learn how to run my race right, and that took a long time.”

The difference “between making a final and winning is fractions of seconds,” said Fetzer, who works with the Cavaliers’ sprinters. “So if you want to get better, you have to learn to do that, and it’s a pride issue too: `Hey, I’ve done this all my life. Why can’t I just do it the way I always have?’

“You have to learn to make some technical changes. But then you also have to, from a pride standpoint, suck it up and go, `OK, I’m not the best. I need to correct some things.’ And sometimes those corrections take a little bit longer than most are willing to allow. But really it kind of clicked for her last year, and from that point, the performance side of things has just skyrocketed.”

Chaney said: “I didn’t take the path that I thought I was going to, but I think the process I had to go through made me a better athlete, and it got me to the place where I am today, so for that I’m very grateful.”

In outdoor track, Chaney competes in the 100- and 200-meter dashes and the 4×100 and 4×400 relays, and her next meet is a major one.

UVA is hosting the fifth annual Virginia Challenge on Friday and Saturday. More than 1,200 men and women representing 61 colleges will compete at Lannigan Field this weekend. Admission is free for the public.

Most of Virginia’s ACC counterparts will compete, along with such SEC teams as Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt. The field includes more than 70 All-Americans, exceptional athletes who have combined to win 16 individual NCAA titles.

“This is definitely the biggest meet that’s ever been at this track,” Fetzer said, “which is fun, and it’s exciting, because it’s grown, and not just the sheer size of it. The caliber of performance is unbelievable. This is like a preview of the national championships.”

Chaney is eager to compete on such a stage. Her UVA career is nearing its end, and she still has goals in track she hopes to reach before starting law school.

Whatever happens this spring, though, Chaney can be proud of how far she’s come during her four years at Virginia.

“She’s become such a good leader on our women’s team,” Fetzer said. “That’s a culture that’s been ever-evolving, and it’s the best it’s been since I’ve been here, from what our team says.”

Chaney said: “We definitely have a really good group of girls. I know the group that I came in under, they really taught me a lot, and that’s something I wanted to give to the younger girls. I think when I leave, it’s just going to continue to get better, because the girls that are here now are incredible.”

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