Evan Jager unleashed two years of competitive-racing energy recently at the Mount SAC Relays.
Jager, making his debut in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, grabbed the attention of track and field enthusiasts across the nation when he cranked out a time of 8:26.12, well below the Olympic B qualifying standard and only 3 seconds off the A standard.
The 2007 Jacobs graduate set the meet record at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif., and established himself as a legitimate contender to qualify for the London Olympic Games in July. It was both thrilling and relieving for Jager, who had not “competitively” raced since June 25, 2010, at the Drake Relays in Des Moines, Iowa.
“I knew a rough estimate of what type of shape I was in and what I had to run,” Jager said. “I also heard the steeple is an event you have to learn before you can be successful in it.”
“I wasn’t in shock running that.” Jager said. “It definitely gives me confidence I could do more. It was really cool to be able to run that time on my first attempt.”
The race and Jager’s postrace interview can be found at flotrack.org. Announcers during the race were mightily impressed with Jager’s debut, in which he ran the final two laps in 2:05 and won by a comfortable margin. His time was the fifth-fastest in the world so far this year and the fastest for a U.S. runner.
Jager suffered a broken navicular bone in his foot at the Drake Relays two years ago in the 1,500 meters. That knocked him out for the remainder of 2010, and his 2011 season was spent just getting back into shape, mostly running 1,500 races.
“It was hard being in races like that, where I wasn’t in a position to contend for making the [U.S.] world team,” Jager said. “I was just there to gain experience. It’s a really weird mentality because I’m used to being really competitive. It was tough for sure. The European season was all about getting a couple [of] races in. I felt completely fried mentally and physically. I wasn’t really having very much fun because I was running so poorly. I just wanted to take my break, start over new and gear up this year.”
Jager’s coach, Jerry Schumacher, understands. Jager joined Schumacher at the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 2007, then, followed him to Oregon the next summer and began competing professionally for Nike. Jager now runs for Schumacher and the Oregon Track Club.
“[Jager] was basically being asked to compete without all the necessary preparation and tools,” Schumacher said. “We had to hold him back. Essentially, he lost two seasons and all he could do was race off of marginal training. You’re not competing at your best, and that’s never ideal or fun.”
Previously, Jager was regarded as a 1,500 or 5,000 runner, but the steeplechase had been mentioned. Last fall, his coaches felt he was ready to pursue the steeplechase, a grueling race with 28 barriers and seven water jumps. He trained with Schumacher and former U.S. Olympic steeplechaser Pascal Dodert.
Jager said he was open to the idea, the seed of which was planted by Kevin Christian, an assistant track coach when Jager was at Jacobs. Jager finished his high school career with four state championship medals.
“When we mentioned it, Evan always had a little smile on his face,” Schumacher said. “He wasn’t afraid of [the steeplechase].”
The steeplechase is not nearly as popular as other distance races. Maybe Jager, 23, can help change that. He is recognizable with his long, floppy hair and can be seen in many running stores on Nike posters.
“It isn’t as popular in the U.S. because most of the more talented runners want to be successful in flat events,” Jager said. “The steeple is kind of looked at as an event that if you can’t cut it in the 1,500, 5K or 10K. It doesn’t get the talent most other events do, so it’s kind of overlooked. I want to run the event I think I will be best for.”
Jager appeared to be on the fast track in 2009 when he finished seventh at the prestigious Bowerman Mile at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore. He was the second U.S. finisher, a second behind Lopez Lomong. He also qualified for the U.S. World Championship team and went to Berlin in the 5,000 meters.
At that point, London looked realistic for Jager. But the injury a year later derailed his training and competing, making London then seem like a long shot. Now, the idea of Jager being an Olympian is real again. The U.S. Olympic Trials will run in June at the University of Oregon in Eugene. Jager will run in the steeplechase preliminaries June 25; the finals are set for June 28. He needs to finish in the top three to qualify for the Olympic Games.
“I’m really excited to be able to run that [qualifying] time,” Jager said. “I know I’m in better shape and I have the potential to run faster. It gives me a lot of confidence going into the trials.”
Jager knows the competition could be stiff and predicts five or six steeplechasers will break the A qualifying standard. He believes he will be one of them.
“[The switch to steeplechase] wasn’t so much of a secret as there was no reason to put unnecessary pressure on Evan,” Schumacher said. “It was something that was an idea, but we didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. With all the training and preparation and training, it may not have worked out. [The Olympics] won’t be easy since he’s not the most experienced steeplechaser. I wouldn’t put it past him. I think some really good things are going to happen for him. The future’s going to be bright for him.”
Here is how Mike Rosenbaum, from About.com explains the two U.S. Olympic Trials’ qualifying standards in track and field events: Athletes who meet the A standard in a recognized national or international event are invited to the Trials for that event. Competitors who meet the B standards are invited only if additional athletes are needed to make the event competitive. For example, the USATF requires a minimum of 32 competitors in the 100-meter dash Trials. If less than 32 Americans qualify under the A standard in the 100, additional sprinters who have attained the B standard will be invited.