The Olympic Men's Steeplechase


Jager_EvanQ1-OlyTr16.JPGEvan Jager, photo by

Elliott Denman wrote this piece about the men in the steeplechase on the same day that Emma Coburn won the bronze medal in the steeplechase with a new AR of 9:07.63! Good luck to the American men!


RIO de JANEIRO - Back home in Glen Ridge, N.J., Horace Ashenfelter is surely smiling.

There was good news out of Estadio Olimpico, this final Monday of the Games of the XXXI Olympiad, and it came in "Ash's" once-upon-a-time event.

At 94, Ashenfelter, the last American to win the 3000-meter steeplechase at the Olympic Games, continues to be a spry, "with it" guy and is surely delighting in the bulletins from Brazil that three Americans had run their way into the final of the 'chase.

Yes, Donn Cabral (8:21.96), Hillary Bor (8:25.01) and Evan Jager (8:25.86) breezed on home in the prelims and now get a day off to prepare for the Wednesday morning final.

They looked mighty good doing it - American record-holder Jager and Bor
actually winning their heats and Cabral racing home in third.

"I was told that this (three Americans making the steeplechase final) hasn't
happened since 1936," said Princeton grad Cabral.

"If so, I guess that's pretty impressive."

Which is pretty much right on the money.

Fine, but can they make a dent in the final standings Wednesday, can they medal, can any of them possibly outrun Ezekiel Kemboi, Brimin Kipruto or Conselsus Kipruto, the Kenyans who plan to extend their East Africa nation's amazing winning streak,longest in any Olympic track event, to a mind-boggling nine straight Games???

Poland's Bronislaw Malinowski (at Moscow in 1980) is the last non-Kenyan to win the event - born of the horse-racing version, now run by humans over five barriers, one of them a water jump, each of the 7 ½ laps.

Kemboi won the Olympic title in 2004 and 2012, Brimin Kipruto in 2008, so every gold medalist in the last dozen years will step to the line Wednesday.

Just one man - Finland's Volmari Iso-Hollo (1932-36) - has ever won the "chase" twice in a row. Then again, no runner has ever won it three times, and that represents Kemboi's own bid to make Olympic history.

Run in hot and humid morning conditions, the steeplechase prelims really, truly were "heats."

And the conditions likely spelled the demise of the many who were clearly not prepared to deal with this kind of steam.

Look at it this way - 45 ran, two were DQ'd; one DNF'd; 15 beat 8:27.69, the finals-qualifying minimum; but seven were actually slower than Ashenfelter back in 1952.

What joy "Ash" brought back to America from the Helsinki Games. Staged at the frigid height of the Cold War, the then-FBI agent outran the Soviet Union's Vladimir Kazantsev to win it in 8:45.4, time that established a world record.

A remembered-forever New York Daily News told the story "FBI man runs down
Russian to take Olympic gold."

Needless to say - but we will anyway - everything in world track has advanced
to incredible levels in the ensuing 64 years, but a Brit, a Belgian, a Sudanese, a Djiboutian, a Bulgarian, and two Spaniards, of those who finished Monday, actually could not beat the Ashenfelter clocking of 1952.

Wisconsin grad Jager, owner of the American record (8:00.45 last year in Paris, despite a fall) remains top choice to upset all this Kenyan steeplechasing hegemony.

But Bor and Cabral looked mighty impressive, in their qualifying races, too.

Both have interesting dossiers.

Bor was born the Eldoret area of Kenya (prime turf for distance running) but wasn't one of those legendary lads who ran 10 miles to school every morning, then 10 miles back in the afternoon.

He was a much later-comer to running, but still quick enough to earn a scholarship from Iowa State University.

After earning a ISU degree in accounting, he went on to gain two separate masters degrees from New Mexico State University.

He was putting these credentials to work in his 9-to-5 "day job" - as a U.S. Army sergeant/finance specialist at Fort Carson, Colorado - until Army brass noted his talents and moved him into the World Class Athletic Program (WCAP.)

By then, he was a USA Olympian, and now he's an Olympic finalist.

Bor is just 5-foot-6 tall ("some people kid that I'm really only 5-4," he tells you) but has no problem scrambling over those barriers. Fact is, he even outscrambled the legendary Kemboi (who owns four World Championship 'chase golds on top of his Olympic honors) in their prelim Monday.

He's also kidded for another thing - he shares the same first name as the Democratic party's presidential candidate, who happens to be female.

Cabral - like Jager running his second Olympic final - is of Portuguese extraction but knew little Portuguese until enrolling in a Berlitz class back in New Jersey, where he trains with the New Jersey-New YorkTrack Club.

"The name Cabral is like Smith back in Portugal," he tells you.

"Cabral is also a revered name here in Brazil."

Explanation: A Cabral (Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral, and his men) were said to be the first Europeans to set foot in Brazil.

Some allege it happened because they were blown far off-course, seeking to find their way to India, back in the year 1500.

Just as Donn Cabral does 506 years later, Pedro Alvares Cabral's journey required successful negotiation of the water hazards of their day.

And as it is for both Cabrals - Bor and Jager, too - it's win some, lose some.

Again, these reminders:

It's 64 years since America's (and Ashenelter's) historic Olympic gold.

It's 32 since an American Olympic steeplechaser collected a medal of any hue -

Brian Diemer's bronze in 1984.

Therefore, this bottom line: Stay tuned, you devotees of Team USA, for major updates.

And have patience..

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