Evan Jager: On the Brink of Never Before, by David Hunter

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Jager_EvanQ-World15.JPgEvan Jager, photo by PhotoRun.net

What a difference four years make. Evan Jager started on his journey in the steeplechase in 2012. At the Oxy Performance meet, Evan looked great, then, fell, and still finished. He has continued to improve ever since. I was in the stands in Paris, cheering on Evan on July 4. Actually, I was calling the race live (you can find it on RunBlogRun, look up Evan Jager), and I used an expletive when he fell, and then, he got up and finished in 8:00.45.

That race put tears in my eyes.

Never had I ever seen a guy with so much determination, Evan was determined to finish and he gutted it out. I am looking forward to his final on Monday.

Here is David Hunter's piece on Evan Jager, after spending some time in the mixed zone with the American record holder.

August 22th, 2015

Only a very few Americans are ever the first American - the first American to accomplish a notable achievement. Against that august backdrop, Evan Jager is on the threshold, poised to join this most exclusive club. Never before has any American - man or woman - won a medal of any color in the 3000 meter steeplechase in the World Championships of Athletics. At the 15th edition here in Beijing, Evan Jager could become that first American.

Earlier this morning, the 26-year old American record holder took another step toward that accomplishment by finishing 2nd in the first heat of the opening round of the men's 3000 meter steeplechase. After a dawdling opening 2 kilometers [3:07, then 2:59], the field of 14 got down to business. As traffic became heavy over the final 300 meters, Jager found himself last in the leading bunch of 5 coming out of the final water jump. Was that the plan? "No, that wasn't the plan," smiled the former Wisconsin athlete. "The plan was to save as much energy as possible. The last lap guys starting moving and I didn't really feel like moving out into lane three to pass guys on the backstretch. So I just was trying to say as close as possible and wait for something to open up. But nothing really opened up so I had to swing wide over the last barrier." Knowing only 3 automatic qualifiers would be coming out of each heat, the Bowerman Track Club athlete downshifted and found clear running as he swung wide over final barrier and pressed past competitors as the finish line approached. "I felt good going into the last barrier so I knew I had a couple of gears left . But I didn't want to leave it that close." A finish line photo sorted it all out: Jager finished 2nd in 8:41.51 as only .11 seconds separated the young Kenyan winner Conseslus Kipruto, Jager, and Canadian athlete Matthew Hughes in third, while France's Yoann Kowal finished only another 1.13 seconds back in an ultimately non-qualifying 4th. For the steeplechaser with the #2 performance on this year's world leader board, it was "Mission Accomplished." "I finished second; I qualified; and I expended as little energy as possible," declared the 2013 world championship finalist. "So I got the job done."

Jager lingered trackside to watch the other opening round steeple heats. And he was upbeat about the performances of his USA teammates - fellow Olympian Donn Cabral and Dan Huling "All three of us have qualified for the finals," added Jager with enthusiasm. "I don't know if that has ever happened for Americans. So getting three guys to the final is huge. We are starting to catch up to where the rest of the U.S. is in the rest of the distances. So it's really cool to be a part of that - to get the steeple to be looked at as not an off event where you do it when you can't run the 15 or the 5K anymore. You have to be a really top, world class runner to make the American steeple team now. It's really cool."

When he finally arrived in the mixed zone, Jager faced the ultimate question about Monday's final: What's his goal? Jager - who lowered his own American steeplechase record to 8:00.45 earlier this summer in the Paris Diamond League gathering despite taking a tumble over the final homestretch barrier - took a moment to offer a measured response. "I would like to medal," he confided. "Top 3 is the main goal. 1st is going to be extremely hard. I think if I run for a medal, I give myself the best chance of medaling and possibly winning the race than if I run for first place."

When asked about the race tempo he expects in Monday's final, Jager - a bona fide student of his event - offered a candid insight: "I don't know what's going to happen," he confessed. "The Kenyans - between the four of them [Kipruto, world leader Jarius Birech, two-time defending world champion and reigning Olympic champion Ezekiel Kemboi, and Brimin Kipruto] - they have a wide range of abilities and tools up their sleeves. A fast race works for a couple of them. A slow race works for the other two. A couple of the guys can do both. I am going to just play it by ear and see how things play out at the beginning and probably have a plan for both styles of racing."

When pressed on how he would like to see the final unfold, Jager wasn't coy. "I think I would prefer it be a fast race from the beginning. That's always been my strength. Regardless of the event, I think a faster pace throughout the course of the race plays into my hands more than a sprint finish." Jager acknowledges that his 1500 PR of 3:32.97- the metric equivalent of a sub 3:50 mile - which he ran earlier this summer in Portland serves to make him more comfortable about his finish in tactical championship racing or fast paced racing. "It gives me confidence kicking off of a faster pace. The race was like a strength run 1500 meter. So it was fast right from the git-go. So I think getting out hard plays into my strengths." But the American finalist is quick to add this qualifier. "I don't try to kid myself into thinking that I have a faster kick than the other guys now because I ran a fast 1500. That's not how it works."

Jager - who appreciates the heritage of his specialty - knows the importance a USA-won world championship medal would mean to American steeplechasing. "It would be really cool. I think to be the first in anything is pretty awesome. I have thought of that," he revealed. But he is quick to add that any such achievement would take on more true importance if it could ignite further elevation of American performances in the 3000 meter barrier event. "I think it would be cool for people to talk about. But I don't know how much it really means other than if we can get the U.S. steeple up to a competitive level - up to where the Kenyans are and where we are in the other distance events. It would be really cool to be a part of that."

If Evan Jager is able to finish in the top three in Monday's final - a feat previously accomplished by no other American - it will of course be a tremendous step forward for this athlete who has essentially toiled alone in the absence of recent domestic role models in his particular event. But perhaps more significant is that in the wake of a medal-worthy performance by the American record holder, an entire generation of young American steeplechasers would likely be inspired like never before.

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Dave Hunter, who ran his marathon P.R. of 2:31:40 on the highly revered Boston Marathon course back in the Paleozoic era, is a track and field announcer, broadcaster, and journalist. To find out more about Dave, please visit www.trackandfieldhunter.com.

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