Updated 9.15 PM, August 17, 2016. Photos and please note that Ezekial Kemboi has been DQed over rule 163.3.
In a brilliant and gutty run, Evan Jager took over the steeple final at three minutes and twenty seconds into the race, broke the race open, stayed calm and collected and caught Ezekial Kemboi on the final straight, to bring the US a silver medal, the highest men’s US finish since 1952 and the first men’s steeple medal since 1984! Conseslus Kipruto won the steeplechase, with Ezekial Kemboi, Olympic champion from 2004 and 2012, taking the bronze.
This race was the work of a team. Under the thoughtful eyes of Coaches Jerry Schumacher and Pascal Dobert, the Bowerman AC team were prepared. Schumacher and Dobert honed the skills of Jager over the barriers and the flats.
The steeplechase is a birthright in Kenya. Since 1968, with the win of Amos Biwott, who leaped over the water jumps, fearing that there might be an alligator in them, to the iconic, eccentric Ezekial Kemboi, a man who won Athens in 2004, London in 2012 and now, bronze in 2016. Evan Jager, by running his race, breaking it open and running down the most medaled steeplechaser in history, did what he set out to do: show that Americans can race with the best!
And it should be noted, Emma Coburn’s masterful bronze medal in the steeplechase on Monday, first ever medal by a US women in the event, just has made this week sweeter!
Here is how, with straining voice and watering eyes, I saw the Olympic steeplechase final!
In 2012, Evan Jager went down in the steeple in Oxy Performance meet. Jerry Schumacher, when I finally spoke to him about it, just smiled and noted that such is the life of a steeplechaser. It was, I believe, Evan’s second steeple at the time.
In the past, many coaches would get the guy who could not run a good mile or 5000 meters and put them in the steeple. That was one of the reasons we sucked at the men’s steeple. John Chaplin, college coach of WR holder Henry Rono, told me that, he would find a 1:48 800 guy or 2:02 800 woman and put them in the steeple. The U.S. woman got it first. Look at Jenny Simpson, and Anna Willard. Fine 800m, 1,500m types who could move over the steeple quite well.
Evan Jager found the steeple or perhaps, better said, Jerry Schumacher found Evan Jager and helped Evan find the steeplechase. Tall, light stride, coordinated, and up for a challenge, Evan Jager took to the iconic event quickly and set AR in his first season in 2012, running well in the Olympic final, but no medal. Evan was sixth in the Olympic final in London 2012, with a time of 8:23.87.
Watching Evan Jager develop over the past four years has lead me to a profound respect for Jerry Schumacher and Pascal Dobert. Not that I did not have one already, but the fine tuning of Evan Jager and his world class skills had a willing athlete and a knowing and observant team of coaches.
In Moscow in 2013, Evan Jager finished fifth, in 8:08.67. But, he was truly in the fight, and the Kenyan athletes knew that this blond haired American kid had lungs and courage. After that race, Evan went to Brussels and ran 13:02.40. I saw that race and smiled.
I thought of my hero, the late Bronislaw Malinowski, Polish gold medalist in 1980 at the steeple, who had a 3:54 milePB, 13:17 5000m and 27:53 for 10,000m PBs. Malinowski was a workhorse, as well as a consumate gentleman, and fine sportsman. Two Olympic steeple medals to prove it, who died way too young in an auto accident.
Back to the point, Evan Jager was honing his skills. His strength showed, with the 5000m PB at 13:02. Another step on the way to greatness, as Jerry Schumacher develped the plan.
In September 2014, in Marrakech, along with about 100 people in the stand, two goats and some diminutive barnyard animals, my son Adam, and my two pretend sons, Mike Deering and Algeron Felice and I watched Evan Jager battle Brimin Kipruto to the final meters in the World Cup 3000 meters, with Jager taking silver in 8:14.08. I noted then, Jager can medal in the steeplchase, hell, he could win a global title, I said to my son. Earlier in May 2014, Evan had run 3:53.33 in the mile at Pre. the speed and strength were there.
In June 2015, Evan Jager blew some away with his solo 3:32.97 for the 1,500 meters. That is world class, take me seriously speed.
I was in Paris on July 4, 2015, when Evan Jager ran with the steeple gods for nearly 2,900 meters, and fell, returning to earth, rolled over and raced home, taking second in 8:00.45, an American record. The Kenyan winner was as shocked as Evan that Jager had went down and said so after the race. Evan Jager had run not only a fast race, but his 8 minutes steeplechase, while falling down, getting up and pushing himself over the finish was the paradigm changer. Fast running in the steeplechase, with 27 times to fall, trip, slow down, over 3000 meters, was not reserved just for Kenyans. There had been athletes who had broken through, from Europe and from the states, but not like Jager, in over forty years.
By the next day, everyone in Kenya knew that this tall American was ready to break up the party. And that may have cost him a medal in Moscow. The Kenyans were ready for Jager. At the end of the day, they are not going to be amused when someone comes in and tries to beat them at their own game. And the steeplechase may have British origins, but the Kenyans own it, barrier to barrier, water jump to water jump!
But, dear and kind readers, anyone who follows middle distance running knows that our sport is not linear. In Beijing, Evan Jager put it all on the table, and was in medal contention with one lap to go. With 300 meters to go, Ezekial Kemboi began his attack, arms flailing, but the speed was the thing, Kemboi devastated the field and Jager fell back, exhausted, to sixth, and second American in the final.
To win an Olympic medal, Evan Jager was going to have to use his huge aerobic capacity and speed and just break the best Kenya had to offer, as well as the rest of the world!
During the early season of 2016, Evan Jager was working on his kick. At the Oxy Performance meeting, where he ran 8:15.6, focusing on his last 400 meters. At the US Trials, Evan told me that the key was for him to hone his final lap well, and be ready to fight.
The race went out respectful. Conseslus Kipruto, who had run 8:00.12 this season, lead through the first kilometer in 2:44.64, with Evan Jager there, followed by Mahiedine Mekhissi, the tall Frenchman who had won the Europeans and medaled in the World Championships, Ezekial Kemboi and Brimin Kipruto.
About three minutes, twenty seconds into the race, Evan Jager took the lead and would not relinquish. His speed focused, Jager pulled away Kipruto and defending champ Ezekial Kemboi away from the field. But, most importanly, they were breaking the field, keeping the potential medalists down to a minimum.
The 2000 meter point was hit in 5:25.82, a 2:44 second kilometer. But, as Evan Jager began his long drive for home that last kilometer was run in 2 minutes and 38 seconds, the fastest of the race. By the bell lap, there were nearly twenty meters on the field, and Jager, Kipruto and Kemboi were in full running, hitting the bell lap in 7:03.
Conseslus Kipruto took the lead, followed by Ezekial Kemboi, with Evan Jager in third. All I could think of, well, Evan is there, and Mekhissi, the Frenchman, who is both crazy and fast, was back a ways. So these are the guys fighting over the three medals, and there are three guys. With 300 meters to go, Kipruto was flying and Kemboi began to flail, starting his kick. Evan Jager looked remarkably calm, and stayed on the shoulder of Kemboi. They cleared the final barrier before the water jump with ease, as they began the run for home. Kipruto kept the lead, as Jager, assurred of a bronze, stayed on Kemboi’s back. The water jump was cleared well, with Ezekial Kemboi in a slight lead in second over Jager and Kipruto in the gold position.
The final barrier was cleared, first by Kipruto who raced home for the gold, taking it in an OR of 8:03.28, a new Olympic record! It was after the final barrier that Evan Jager took the definitive step and put daylight on Ezekial Kemboi, with Evan Jager taking the silver in 8:04.28, and Ezekial Kemboi taking the bronze in 8:08.47.
Coming up fast at the end was hard charging Mahiedine Mekhissi, FRA, who ran 8:11.52 for fourth. Soufiane Elbakkali, MAR, ran 8:14.35, a personal best for fifth. In sixth, 2014 European Champion (the year Mekhissi took off his singlet down the stretch, while winning and was disqualified), Yoann Kowall, ran 8:16.75. Next, the man who ran in Paris with Evan Jager in 2015, ran 8:18.79, and Olympic champion from Beijing, Brimin Kipruto finished seventh. Brimin Kipruto also won Osaka World Champ steeplechase.
I put the titles in this field so that you realize that Evan Jager, in one race, has defeated the Olympic champions for 2004, 2008, 2012, and the World Champions since 2003 in one race. The level of his racing, and the quality of the athete, his tactics and his support team all come into play in such an endeavor.
Evan Jager has ended the drought in the steeplechase for US men. The first medals since 1984 (Brian Deimer) and 1968 (George Young), and the best medal performance for the US man since 1952 and the great and lively Horace Ashenfelter!
Evan Jager has honed his fine skills, through good times and frustrating times. But, when ones aims for the very pinnacle, there are challenges, and how one answers those challenges shows not only the character, but the focus of the athlete. I hope Evan Jager stays with the steeplechase for a bit of time more, as he has the wheels and now the confidence to go sub 8 minutes and put the American record into a very special place. But also, need to note, how honored I feel having observed such an athlete and sub a club develop over the past seven years from a developing middle distance prodigy to the Olympic silver medalist. I hope Jerry Schumacher and Pascal Dobert are smiling, ear to ear!
Congrats to Evan Jager once again! We look forward to interviewing you soon on all things steeplechase!
One final thought. To be a really fine distance runner, one will take 12-15 years of dedication. Hence, we have thrown in two photos from 2005 and 2007, as Evan Jager was budding high school star!
And what a great race by Conseslus Kiupruto and the great Ezekila Kemboi! You two do honor to your event, your sport and your country with your fearless running.
Update, 9.15 PM
Right after the race, a furor erupted. French team filed a protest that Ezekial Kemboi should be DQed on rule 163.3, about stepping out of legal running lane and impeding athlete. As Mahiedine Mekhissi, FRA, was back several seconds, I did not see any issue of interfering with Mekhissi, but the IAAF approved the protest and Kemboi has been Dqed. I think it is pretty sad, as Kemboi is most medaled steepler in sport history. Eccentric, but a fine tactician and savvy racer.