by Dave Hunter
June 25, 2017, Sacramento
It is difficult enough for track & field athletes to religiously hone their craft in the never-ending drive to be among their country's best. But it is only in very rare circumstances when an even more remarkable performer can rise not simply to be among the country's best, but to be the country's dominating performer in that event. Today, steeplechase specialist Evan Jager showed once again that he is such an athlete.
After Jager left the University of Wisconsin to turn professional, it took a while for the Illinois native to find his best event. After dabbling with the longer, flat distance events, the young professional decided in 2012 to give the steeplechase a whirl.
Perhaps we should have known what was in store when Jager ran 8:06.81 to set the American record in only his 5 attempt at the 3000 meter barriered event. Since then, he has further lowered his American best several times to 8:00.45, been a two-time world championship steeplechase finalist, and made the Olympic steeple finals both in London and in Rio where he captured the silver medal. And today - under Sacramento's blazing sun and in oven-like conditions - the 28-year-old Nike athlete won his fifth national steeplechase title.
Thirteen other steeplechasers joined Jager in today's final. It is doubtful any honestly thought they could defeat the Olympic silver medalist. Their focus had to be upon securing one of the two remaining world championship berths. As the race got underway, Saucony's Brian Shrader and Michael ["Not Air"] Jordan rushed to the front to set the early pace. It was a modest tempo as the field respected the oppressive weather conditions. Jager - who two years ago set a 1500 meter personal best of 3:32.97 - was not likely rattled by the lighter cadence and the bunched competitors that surrounded him in the opening lap. In the second circuit, the Bowerman Track Club athlete moved up to fifth and then eventually slid into third within a pack that included Schrader, Haron Lagat, Olympian and American leader Hillary Bor, former Indiana star Andrew Bayer, and Nike's Stanley Kibenei. With just under a mile remaining, Lagat surged to the front, with both Bor and Jager covering Lagat's move.
Just inside 3 laps remaining, Jager decided it was time for him to take the steering wheel as he easily moved to the front. Instead of unleashing a long kick, the American record holder throttled down the cadence as a pack of fully 10 crowded athletes hit the start/finish line together with 2 laps remaining. Jager took command for good with a powerful drive over the penultimate water jump - somewhat separating himself from his pursuers. By the bell, Kibenei, Bor, and Bayer had joined Jager in the breakaway. It had become a game of musical chairs: 4 athletes vying for 3 tickets to London. With half a lap remaining, the final positions remained undecided until Jager unleashed an aggressive, and speedy clearance of the final water barrier - a dramatic tactic reminiscent of the East Africans that drew "ooohs" in the press box. Jager's water jump move sparked his finish for the win in 8:16.88, while the remaining spots were still up for grabs. Teammates Kebenei and Bor hugged the rail over the final barrier, denying a driving Bayer of any hope of an inside pass. A desperate dive by Bayer [8:18.90] at the line proved unsuccessful as Kibenei [8:18.54] and Bor [8:18.83] snared the last two world championship tickets.
In the media tent, Bayer recounted those final meters. "The thing that I haven't quite done well yet is learn to kick on the homestretch in the steeple. It's a hard thing to do. I was coming back on Hillary," said Bayer, knowing he was running out of time. "So I went wide and I almost made it by..."
Second-placer Kebenei gave credit to his heavier and consistent training regimen. "This is the result of training, training, training. I've gone from running 60 miles a week to running 105 a week. I ran pretty easy today, so I'm thankful. I want to go to London and see if I can come away with a medal."
Not at his best in the Sacramento heat, Bor had to really battle to make the London squad. "That was tough. I did not feel good. I did not feel good on Friday. I did not feel good today. That was the toughest race I have ever done in a long time. I think the heat I guess. I think it was because of the heat. I am glad I made the team."
The now 5-time national champion offered insight into his race plan in the mixed zone. "The steeple is really coming around, and it just makes it harder to win," declared Jager afterwards. "I knew it was going to be hard. It was a little windy; I didn't want to be in the lead for four and a half laps like last year. So I wanted to wait, kind of trust my speed and my hurdling form and technique against the rest of the guys. I just wanted to stay relaxed as long as possible and when I went making it a hard move and just use the benefits of being in the lead while running fast over the barriers to my advantage." The winner commented on his last two water jump clearances. "Jerry [coach Schumacher] made sure I would stay focused [over the final 800 meters] going over that water jump and be very powerful and very strong when I land and use that as a way to just beat the guys instead of sprinting away from them. It felt really good." Dave Hunter