The Fear, by Jon Gugala, note by Larry Eder

This is Jon Gugala's column for Tuesday, June 26, 2012. It is called the Fear. You will get it, as the elite athlete's do. I remember seeing Evan Jager hit the last water barrier with the back of his foot, and I knew, he was taking a dive.

But, Jerry Schumacher, his coach, got it too. He knew that Evan had to screw up, and it was better to do it in the Oxy than the Trials. To be a great distance runner, one must run on the red line. For the steepler, one must also overcome the barriers while oxygen deprived, so tactics, hurdling experience and strength all play a part.

In my mind, a sport's writer's job is to communicate experiences that the reader never has had, and give them an insight into the situation. Jon Gugala has done that here.

We hope that you are enjoying our coverage of the Olympic Trials as much as we love presenting the great athletes and events that make up the 2012 US Olympic Trials. 

Jager_Evan-Oxy12.JPGEvan Jager, 2012 Oxy High Performance Meet
Photo by

By Jon Gugala

EUGENE, Oregon
June 26, 2012

Go back to this year's USATF Oxy High Performance Meet, hosted by Occidental College in early May. Evan Jager, Nike athlete and member of the 2009 U.S. world championship 5,000-meters team, goes into the bell lap of his second steeple ever--the first being a massive win and Olympic trials "A" standard of 8:26.14 at Mt. Sac in April--and he's got a kick.
Jager uses this kick, and boy, it is looking great. He's gapped the field and another win seems all but guaranteed, as does a time well below the Olympic "A" standard of 8 minutes, 23.10 seconds.

But in a moment of impetuousness Jager decides to hurdle the entire final water barrier sans footplant. It's something you see Kenyans occasionally do in world championship finals when they're kicking.
Jager catches his trailing leg. He goes headfirst into the pit. He staggers home for fourth in 8:20.90.

"The first thing Jerry [Schumacher, coach] said was, 'You're an idiot,'" Jager said after his Monday steeplechase heat, "and then that it was probably a good thing that it happened there just so that I would appreciate the event and respect the event then on."

It sounds so simple: a little mistake never to be repeated.

But from such soil sprouts The Fear.

The Fear is that sour turn of your stomach an hour past when you'd hoped to be asleep, the feeling of being stalked by disaster, visions of failure playing in High-Def on the insides of your eyelids. It is that half-inch of leg raise that means clearing or clipping the barrier.

While Jager is a favorite in his event in the 2012 Olympic team trials, he's not alone; Don Cabral of Princeton, in the same race at Oxy, set the American collegiate record, passing a supersaturated Jager to win in 8:19.14. The 2011 U.S. champ Billy Nelson is back for the 2012 Olympic team trials and advanced by time through Monday's heats.

But while these men will be close, the race is Jager's to win. And that means it's also Jager's to lose.

So returns The Fear.

For Monday's steeplechase rounds the grey Oregon skies again poured down, and for the distance event that requires most nimble precision of foot placement, conditions made the barrier slicker.

In heat one, Jager hit the bell lap again in the lead.

Jager_EvanQ-OlyT12.jpgEvan Jager, 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials, Steeplechase
Photo by

"I thought about it [falling] the last lap," Jager said. "I saw it coming up. I was in the lead again, and I was thinking you don't need to crush it. You're in the lead right now. Just get through it and run hard right out of the pit."

Jager hadn't overcome The Fear; he hadn't denied it. He had accepted it.

The Fear is ever-present when racing at the highest level. You could go so far as to say that without it, there is no highest level because there is no striving, and therefore no transcendence.

 "Fear is powerful," Lauren Fleshman said after advancing to the final from her 5,000-meters heat on Monday. "I'm a person who was seventh in the world last year. To be in that same environment feeling like I don't know if I can finish a 5k, it's easier to just say, 'I'm afraid of that and I don't want to do that.'
"The fear is presenting a version of yourself that isn't your best."

For Fleshman, too, The Fear is still there.

Maybe the best words from Monday on The Fear came from Nick Symmonds, who that evening successfully defended his 2008 Olympic trials title en route running 1:43.92, the fastest time ever for an American at Hayward Field.

"Everybody has fear in their life," Symmonds said. "The trick is to embrace it, and to attack anyway."

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