Evan Jager never turned in a more impressive loss in his racing life.
Jager was winning the 3,000-meter steeplechase at a Diamond League Meet in Paris on July 4, substantially, when he clipped the final hurdle and tumbled to the track.
Only then did Kenya’s Jairus Birech, who has dominated Diamond League steeplechases the last two seasons, pass Jager to beat him.
Still, that second-place finish in 8:00.45 (breaking his own U.S. record by four seconds) was significant. It indicated that Jager, a 2007 Jacobs graduate who has ruled American steeplechases since 2012, is ready to take on the world.
“He’s in a good place,” said Jerry Schumacher, a Nike distance coach whose training group includes Jager. “He’s at the point in his athletic career where he’s one of the best in the world. This is the first year he’s done that. This is the first year where I’ve seen him in a place where the confidence, the maturity and the talent’s all come together.”
The IAAF World Track and Field Championships start on Saturday in Beijing, China, although Jager’s qualifying heat will be run at 9:25 p.m. CDT Friday. He likely will advance to Monday’s finals, which will be at 8:15 a.m. CDT, where he will be considered a favorite.
“You never really know how things are going to go,” Jager said. “You have to show up on race day. It’s extremely hard to win a world championship. Everyone is going to bring their A-plus game. No one’s going to check it off because they’re a little tired.”
Jager was ticked following his fall in Paris. After he finished, he leaned on a hurdle with a look of disbelief. Birech joined a teammate in celebration, then congratulated Jager and checked to see if he was OK.
Jager knew that, basically, he had won a race dominated by Kenyans for decades.
“I was so mad,” said Jager, who likely would have run in 7:57. “But if it only happens once this year, I’m glad it happened there and not at Worlds.”
Schumacher feels this summer – with Jager’s 3:32 1,500 in a Portland Track Club Meet and his performance in Paris – could be the start of a spectacular run the 26-year-old.
“Athletes have a shelf life for what they do,” Schumacher said. “They have this incredible window of opportunity where they can be at their best. He’s kind of just beginning that window of being his best. You don’t know how many years that will last. He’s in that place right now and it should be a really, really fun ride for him, for however long it lasts.”
Along with Birech, who fought through malaria after his win in Paris to win the steeplechase at Kenya’s National Meet, countrymen Ezekiel Kemboi and Conseslus Kipruto will be top runners.
“It’s a lot harder than winning a Diamond League race like Paris,” said Jager, who was fifth in the Worlds at Moscow in 2013. “Just because everyone wants it so badly. It would be tough for sure at the World Championships.”
Kemboi has won the last three world titles and two of the last three Olympics. Birech has won almost every Diamond League race the last two years. And Kipruto was the 2013 world runner-up.
“He’s got some really tough competition,” Schumacher said. “He definitely has his work cut out for him. I want him to try to be as flawless as possible and run to the best of his abilities. That really has to be the main goal, execute and be the best you can on that day. Whatever it is, it is.”
Schumacher believes Jager is capable of handling any type of race the Kenyans throw at him, whether it’s slower-paced with a kick at the end or if the pace is pushed hard throughout, like it was in Paris.
“I think they would hope for a slow pace and a fast kick at the end,” Jager said. “Who knows? The guy who’s been on fire the last two years [Birech] he might not want to work with them and potentially not win. He’s more of a stength runner and might want to push the pace early on. I have no clue how things are going to go.”
Joel Jager, Evan’s father, tried, unsuccessfully, to temper his excitement about the possibilities.
“He’s quicker and faster than he’s ever been,” Joel said. “I’m optimistic. It’d be great if he broke 8:00. It’d be great if he was on the podium at the world championships. If he won the thing, the world would change. People are going to make such a big story out of it. If it happens at the World Championships, that’s going to be nuts. Good night!”
Schumacher chuckled when asked what an American winning the Kenyans’ race would mean to track and field.
“It’d be huge,” he said. “The Kenyans have had a stranglehold on that event for 30 years. It would be a little less shocking now because everyone got a glimmer of Evan in Paris. But it would still be shocking if that were to happen. It would be a great, great moment in American distance running.”