Evan Jager definitely took the less-traveled road to professional athletics.
The route was not even one Jager saw coming as a freshman at the University of Wisconsin.
In Madison, Jager was enjoying running for the Badgers in track and field and learning from Wisconsin cross country and distance coach Jerry Schumacher, a dynamic personality who had produced multiple NCAA cross country national championship teams.
Jager, a 2007 graduate of Jacobs High School, earned All-America honors by taking eighth in the 1,500 meters at the 2008 NCAA Championships and learned shortly after that Schumacher was leaving Wisconsin to coach with the Nike Oregon Project.
Schumacher had a stable of former Badgers who were going with him, runners with whom Jager had trained and was well-acquainted. Jager was inspired by working with Schumacher, who asked him to join the Nike group.
While most aspiring professional athletes hone their skills for years in college, the minor leagues or on various tours, Jager was 19 and one year removed from his high school graduation when he left the Midwest and turned pro.
On Monday, he flew from the U.S. to Europe, where he will train for a while and run one race to prepare for the Summer Olympic Games in London. Jager won the 3,000-meter steeplechase last month in Eugene, Ore., to qualify for the Olympics at age 23. It is a race he has run all of four times.
“It didn’t take a lot of convincing at all,” Jager said of turning pro. “My parents (Joel and Cathy) were very supportive of it. They wanted to make sure I was staying in school and got my degree, as opposed to putting it off until I finished running. That was the only stipulation.”
Jager lives in Portland, Ore., and attends Portland State, where he is about a year away from completing his graduation requirements, although he hardly feels like a real student.
“I had to sacrifice the college experience,” Jager said. “I show up for classes, then leave. It’s not the full college experience, living in dorms and meeting people. I’m a runner, first and foremost, taking classes on the side. It’s been a lot of hard work, starting right away when I moved out here. The first year was very tough.”
In 2009, however, it became apparent Jager had made the right move. He qualified for the Track and Field World Championships in the 5,000 meters and competed in Munich. Schumacher’s instincts about Jager were dead-on.
“It was more the whole package,” Schumacher said. “From seeing his personality, his desires, what he aspired to do, how he approached things, the maturity and physical talents he displayed, you put that all together and you could just kind of tell. You’re not always going to hit a home run when you guess on an athlete, but a lot of things stood out to me, and he proved them all correct.”
Jager’s first sporting love was soccer, but by middle school, when he and buddy Aaron Russo started cleaning up in track and cross country, he caught the running bug. He said the support of his parents was vital to his career and calls his sister, Mallory, his personal cheerleader. Mallory was there when Jager ran his first steeplechase this spring in California; all three were there in Eugene for his crowning moment.
“It’s a dream come true,” Jager said. “It’s been something I wanted to do since I started running, whether I was getting paid or not. It’s a blessing that I get to go out every day and do what I love to do, and get paid to do it. I can’t think of a better situation.”
Jager cannot imagine enjoying his professional career any more than he has. He overcame a broken bone in his right foot, suffered in 2010, and returned to take up the steeplechase and dominate in the U.S. Being a professional offers another benefit for Jager, whose face is seen on Nike posters around the world.
“It’s crazy,” Jager said. “That’s the one thing I never really expected to happen. I dreamed of running professionally and being in the Olympics, but never thought my face would be on posters in Dick’s Sporting Goods in (hometown) Algonquin or in Tokyo.”
Jager often receives Facebook or Twitter messages from friends who might be studying abroad or visiting a place like Costa Rica, saying they saw his face on a Nike poster there.
“It’s really cool,” Jager said. “It’s nice because it keeps me in touch with people.”