Those who know Evan Jager best marvel at the transformation they have witnessed in the past year.
Jager already owned the six fastest 3,000-meter steeplechase times in U.S. track and field history. Before this summer, Jager was recognized as an upcoming threat in the race Kenyans have pretty much owned for the past 30 years.
Joel and Cathy Jager see it in their 26-year-old son, in his running and in his speech.
“He’s a completely different kid, now a completely different young man, than he was a year ago,” Joel said. “He has a different level of confidence than he had in world championships past and at the  Olympics.”
Jacobs cross country coach Kevin Christian sees it, too.
“He finishes with the Africans now,” Christian said. “[In the past] he’d hang on, hang on, hang on … and the Kenyans would take off on him [in the final lap]. I see huge amounts of confidence in his last lap now, the way he’s running. It’s totally different.”
Jager, a 2007 Jacobs High School graduate from Algonquin who lives in Portland, Oregon,, will race in the IAAF World Track and Field Championships this month in Beijing. The qualifying heats will be Aug. 22, the finals will be at 8:15 a.m. Aug. 24.
Everything in Jager’s life has fallen into place. Now in his fourth year running the steeplechase, he is more accustomed to the race. He is in the best shape of his life, and his girlfriend of more than two years, Sofia Hellberg Jonsén, who grew up in Sweden and ran at Mississippi, moved to Portland, where she works in marketing with Skanska Engineering Service.
“It’s been nice to have a real relationship where you can grow and really learn who they are in person,” Jager said. “It’s nice sharing day-to-day stuff, boring kind of stuff.”
The day-to-day happenings may be mundane, but Jager’s performances this summer certainly are not. His races suggest he could medal, perhaps even win, the steeplechase at the world championships.
“I’ve just gotten more comfortable with the event,” Jager said from Park City, Utah, where he was doing altitude training with other Nike team members. “I’ve gotten to the point this year where my fitness is so high I’m able to go out with a fast pace early on and not be scared about blowing up. If I were to do that two years ago, or even last year, it might have been really tough at the end of the race.
“I’ve exceeded my expectations, things have been awesome, but the big goal is the world championships.”
Jager grabbed everyone’s attention June 18 when he ran a 3:32.97 to win the 1,500 meters at a Portland Track Festival race, the fastest time ever run by an American-born runner in the U.S.
“I was not expecting that type of race,” Jager said. “That kind of surprised me a little bit.”
It speaks to the training regimen of Jager’s coach Jerry Schumacher, who recruited Jager to Wisconsin, then, after his freshman year there, invited him to become a professional and run with Nike.
“[Schumacher] has pretty much changed things every year I’ve been out in Portland,” Jager said. “We’ve done a little more speed work than we did in the past. That’s been extremely beneficial in helping me get ready for that fast 1,500. It helps me feel more efficient running and allows me to handle faster paces.”
The 1,500 was eye-popping, but the steeplechase is Jager’s race. He cruised to the win at the U.S. Track and Field Championships in Oregon in late June, then was having the run of his life in a Diamond League race July 4 near Paris.
Jager was well ahead of Kenya’s Jairus Birech, who has been dominating the steeplechase since 2014, and was poised to become the first non-African-born runner to break 8:00 in that race. But Jager clipped the last hurdle with his left (trail) foot and fell, allowing Birech to win, although Jager still ran 8:00.45, knocking four seconds off his U.S. record.
“I was extremely [ticked] that I fell,” Jager said. “I was so mad. But if it only happens once this year, I’m glad it happened there and not at worlds. I just barely clipped it. It was just enough to throw me off. I was so tired at that point that I couldn’t keep myself from falling. With it being in the back of my mind now, I might be able to save myself or do something differently.”
Joel and Cathy Jager were so thrilled at Evan’s performance that they were not even upset he took second. Birech and his teammates celebrated, then quickly congratulated Jager on his race and asked whether he was uninjured.
“It was OK with me. Cathy, too,” Joel said. “We didn’t really panic. If you saw the Kenyans around him afterward, that was unheard of. That never, ever happens, where they come up and put their arms around a guy who just handed them their lunch. He won that thing.”
Because no one ever “hands them their lunch.” Which is what will make the steeplechase at worlds even more intriguing. Ten of the past 12 world champs are Kenyans, as are the past eight Olympic champions.
“It’s tremendously exciting,” said Christian, a Jacobs assistant track coach who works with the distance runners. “He can win it. You’re hoping to at least get a medal at worlds. Who knows what color it’s going to be? He showed he can race with anybody. We’ll see what happens.”
Jager knows the stakes are much higher, but also realizes he is a contender.
“It’s a lot harder than winning a Diamond League race like Paris, just because everyone wants it so badly,” Jager said. “[The Kenyans] will probably be a little bit more aware [of me]. It hurts me if anything. They’ll be expecting me in the mix as opposed to going in and maybe surprising them a little bit.”