Evan Jager was a fine high school runner, who came to Wisconsin to be coached by Jerry Schumacher, then UW’s head cross country and distance coach. When Schumacher got the offer of a lifetime, to be one of the Nike Oregon Track Club coaches, Even Jager left college to come West and run for the Swoosh.
2013 World Outdoor Track & Field Championships / Moscow Notebook
Evan Jager’s Steeplechase Love Affair
It is a question that will always be asked: Why in the world would any accomplished track & field athlete actually choose to run the 3000 meter steeplechase? There is a certain school of thought that suggests that because the steeple – with daunting water jumps and those damn sturdy barriers that simply don’t move – is such an arduous and technically-complex event, steeplechase competitors are desperate distance running outliers – forced to run this crazy event because they simply can’t reach the performance level that would allow them to compete in more sane events like the 1500 or 5000.
USA’s Evan Jager may be the best evidence that this theory of universal disdain for the steeple – if not completely without foundation – is grossly overstated. “I definitely love it,” Jager unabashedly proclaims shortly after qualifying for the 3000 meter steeplechase final here at the 2013 world track & field championships. “When I first started training for the steeple, it took me like two weeks to get hurdling down. And once I did that and it felt really comfortable for me, I just knew I was going to have a lot of fun with the event because it just felt so natural,” adds Jager with a smile.
Make no mistake, the young Wisconsin graduate didn’t retreat to the steeplechase due to an inability to compete at, say, 5000 meters. Jager’s nonetheless-impressive yet certainly-outdated 5000 P.R. of 13:22.18 – set four years ago when he was a 20 year old pup – does not accurately reflect Jager’s current 5K potential. “I definitely feel I can still be relevant and race the 5K on the international level – probably not the 15. I definitely just choose to do this event [the steeplechase] because I really enjoy it and obviously I think it is my best event.”
To appreciate fully Evan Jager’s steeplechase accomplishments and his ongoing upside potential in the event, it is important to understand how far he has come in such a short period of time. Jager redirected his focus to the 3000 meter steeplechase in early 2012. His first steeple competition – an auspicious debut at the 2012 Mt. SAC Relays where he won in 8:26.14 – was in April of the Olympic year. Less than 3 months later, he won the U.S. Olympic Trials steeplechase in 8:17.40. Just like that, this then-23 year old nascent steeplechaser was off to the Olympic Games to compete in an event which is traditionally dominated by older, more experienced athletes who have honed their steeple skills over many seasons. In London, Jager made the final and finished a most credible 6th. His Olympic performance – while stunning for one so new to the new event – was not completely unexpected. In Monaco – just weeks before the Games – Jager had offered a further glimpse of his massive upside steeplechase potential by running a sparkling 8:06.81 in Monaco to set a new American steeplechase record.
Evan Jager is an immensely talented athlete with a free-spirited, understated personality. His unbelievably rapid steeplechase progression combined with his youthful good looks and legendary wavy, flowing blond hair have accorded him a sort of rock star status. Hell, his abundant locks alone have spawned a Twitter account…for his hair. @JagersHair has 461 followers! While the young steepler categorically denies ever being a skateboarder [“I never really skateboarded,” he insists.], he admits to enjoying snowboarding. “I used to snowboard, but I don’t do it anymore,” offers Jager. “I would get killed if I got hurt snowboarding.”
Jager’s chilled-out, breezy exterior can camouflage his perfectionist tendencies, his precise attention to detail, and his competitive fire. The young emerging star didn’t become the American record holder in the steeple through a casual, unfocused approach to the event. His meteoric rise was fueled by a carefully constructed regimen founded upon perfection – an approach developed by Jager and his coach/event specialist Pascal Dobert. Jager and Dobert – himself a three-time U.S. national steeplechase champion and two-time Olympian – have forged an athlete-coach union which has cultivated Jager’s fast-paced, steep improvement. “He’s been huge,” insists Jager, who is quick to attribute much of his success to Dobert’s skillful contributions. “He’s been with me every day from Day One when we started training. Right away, he is telling me how to do it perfectly. It obviously is a long process to get everything down correctly – hurdling technique and water jumping. But he just expected me – and he was teaching me how – to do it perfectly right from the get go. So there was no babying around to learning it. And I think that was part of the reason why I have taken to the event so fast.”
Jager credits Dobert with starting him out correctly, preventing him from developing bad habits during the learning process, and perfecting his textbook either-leg hurdling technique. “We started out from Day One doing both trail legs, both lead legs so that is the only way that I’ve practiced. I am sure I have one leg that is better than the other. But I can definitely do both.” Dobert taught Jager that practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect.
Jager – swift to learn the steeple – is also a quick study on championship racing. In Monday’s preliminary round, the young American stayed alert and out of trouble in his qualifying heat. Ready to go when the pace picked up, Jager moved with efficiency over the final 600 – his picture-perfect hurdling never wavering – as he won his heat in 8:23.76 – .08 seconds ahead of championship favorite Ezekiel Kemboi – the world leader with an earlier-posted 7:59.03. “I felt pretty good,” the relaxed athlete confided after the race. “Coming down from altitude, I felt really good the last two days. So I was excited to get into the prelim and just kind of see what it felt like again to get into a high profile steeple race. I stayed in the top four for most of the race. That was the goal: to stay in the top four and finish in the top three. It felt good.” Over the final circuit, Jager was on the watch to protect his qualifying position from any attempted homestretch heroics. “I looked [at the big screen] on the backstretch so I knew there were people there. I guess I didn’t know we had gapped all those guys until just a little bit before the last hurdle. But when I was over the last hurdle, I heard the French guy [Noureddine Smail] trip up on the hurdle. And I knew that pretty much secured my top three spot. I felt really comfortable the whole time. The last lap was a little bit of a grind. But I was just trying to compose myself and stay as energy efficient as possible. So I think that has something to do with it. I’ve got two days rest and I think I’ll be ready to go for the final.”
It is easy to sense that Jager will be bringing a quiet assuredness into Thursday’s final. “I don’t feel like it is a new event for me anymore. I feel like I gained a lot confidence last year,” he explains. “And opening up in the steeple at Pre with an 8:08.60 [a time never matched by any other American] gave me a huge amount of confidence. So I am definitely feeling comfortable being in the top five with the Kenyans and Mekhissi [France’s Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad]. Beaming, Jager adds, “I am starting to really love the event now.”
What is Jager’s ideal tempo for Thursday’s f
inal? “I am hoping for a fast race” confides Jager, whose Pre mark makes him #8 on the WL list. “I think that the Kenyans – assuming all four get into the final – might take it out hard or maybe they’ll share the lead in duties and try to get all three medals. Mekhissi is fast and he has run 8:00 already this year. I am not really sure. We’re just going to be ready for everything. But if it is really fast, I am not going to be upset.”
The American record holder has a plan for pre-final chilling. “Stretching. Message, definitely. Ice bath,” says Jager. “Luckily, I have four other teammates here so I’ll have someone to hang with.” And with a smile he adds, “I won’t be doing any skateboarding, for sure.”