STANFORD, Calif. – Talk about a fast learner. Former 1,500-meter runner Evan Jager didn’t try his first 3,000-meter steeplechase race until 2012, and by 2014, he was ranked No. 2 in the world.
So much for years of hard work, dedication and sacrifice. Even so, his introduction to the barriers-and-water jumps event was not without its mishaps.
He can laugh about it now but he surely wasn’t chuckling much on that spring day in 2012 at the Oxy High Performance meet at Occidental College in Los Angeles in one of his first steeplechase races.
“I completely missed the barrier on the water jump,’’ Jager said. “I went to plant my foot on the barrier, completely missed it and went into the deep part.’’
His early blunder notwithstanding, the 26-year-old Jager has been able to avoid the kind of misfortune that can loom over any of the 28 barriers and seven water jumps in this 7 ½-lap event.
By the summer of 2012, Jager had progressed, nay, rocketed, all the way to the top of the podium at the U.S. Olympic Trials at Hayward Field and ended up finishing sixth in the Summer Olympics in London. His seasonal best of 8 minutes, 6.81 seconds at Monaco was the fastest time ever run by an American to that point.
“He’s cut really high,’’ Jager’s coach, Jerry Schumacher, said, referring to his high waist and long legs. “He’s got a pop in his step. He bounces off the ground pretty easy. He’s light on his feet. We knew he could be pretty good after the first few hurdle sessions. We knew pretty early he had some natural aptitude for it.’’
Jager, who was born in Algonquin, Ill., improved his U.S. record to 8:04.71 in finishing third at the Brussels Diamond League meet last year to secure his No. 2 global ranking by Track & Field News. In just two years, this upstart American from the Bowerman Track Club in Portland was hanging with the preeminent Kenyans and even beating some of them. In 2014, eight of the top 10 men in the steeplechase rankings were Kenyan.
“It’s cool. It’s fun,’’ Jager said. “It happened really fast, especially the first year. I jumped into that top tier really quickly. I was running naïve that first year. It’s been a fun ride. I enjoy racing against the best in the world.’’
How in the name of Henry Marsh (the last American to be ranked No. 1 in the world in 1985) did it happen so fast for Jager? In 2008, he was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin with a personal best of 3:41.24 in the 1,500.
“It didn’t really take much convincing,’’ Jager said. “One of my high school coaches told me I could be a good steepler. When I went to college I didn’t think about it until 2011. I had an urge to try it. At the same exact time, my coaches, Pascal (Dobert) and Jerry (Schumacher) must have been talking about it, too.’’
At nearly 5-foot-11, Jager has long legs that enable him to get over the 36-inch wooden barriers without difficulty and to propel himself far enough into the 12-foot-long water jump that he doesn’t lose momentum.
As it turned out, Jager was a one-and-done guy at Wisconsin. He chose to leave school, turn pro and follow Schumacher and Dobert to Portland when they had a coaching opportunity from Nike. In his case, a new setting and a new event equaled sudden success.
In the red singlet of the Bowerman TC, Jager is coached on the technical aspects of the steeple by Schumacher, while Dobert, himself a former steeplechaser, handles Jager’s strength training and logistics. It’s obviously working.
“It’s really fun being able to work on the hurdling and water jump aspect of the event,’’ Jager said. “It makes me feel like more of an athlete than your typical distance runner. It’s really a tough event. It breaks up the mindlessness of distance racing where you get out and stare at the back of the guy in front of you. It’s fun having something break up the race and having something to concentrate on.’’
Jager said the water jump represents the event’s, “X factor. It’s hard to plan for. My second steeple I fell in the water jump leading the race.’’
That would be at Oxy in 2012. Ever since then, it’s been nothing but success on the highest level. Jager, who opened his outdoor season with a 3:39.40 third-place finish in the 1,500 at the Payton Jordan Invitational, will contest his first steeple of 2015 at the Prefontaine Classic on May 30. He’ll return to Hayward Field, June 25-28, for the USA Outdoor Championships.
“My goals have been the same for the last three years,’’ Jager said. “I would love to medal at the World Championships. If I happen to get into a fast race, I’d love to break that 8-minute barrier. Running 8:06 so early in my career, I didn’t realize – not that I thought it would be easy – but how lucky you have to be to run a time like that. It’s going to take a special race.’’
Like on a perfect summer evening in Europe in a Diamond League race, say.
“I would need to be dragged along to it at that point,’’ Jager said. “That’s been a long-term goal. It will continue to be a goal until I break it.’’
Said Schumacher, “The next three years should be a lot of fun for him. It will be fun for the coaching staff to watch him as well. He’s a great young man. He’s a team guy. He loves his teammates. He wants to work hard. He’s dedicated. It’s the total package.’’
After a summer that he hopes includes a spot on the U.S. team for the IAAF World Championships in Beijing, Jager said he’s anticipating some well-deserved rest and recovery. He’ll finish his undergraduate degree at Portland State this spring and once he returns home from a summer of steepling, there’s nothing pressing on his schedule.
“I’m looking forward to having a lot of free time this fall and actually enjoy Portland,’’ he said. “I love being outside when it’s nice out. I love all the small breweries in Portland. I can sit down for a glass of beer on a day if it’s 75, 80 (degrees) and be content.’’
Until then, there are teams to be made and fast races to be run for this man to whom the steeplechase came naturally – with one notable exception.
Previous TTUSA stories by John Crumpacker:
John Crumpacker was a sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for more than three decades. In that time he won seven national writing awards and covered 10 Olympic Games. He was president of the Track & Field Writers of America on two occasions.