RIO DE JANEIRO – Evan Jager knew in the final 100 meters he didn’t have a chance to win gold at the Rio Olympics.
Jager entered the final 100 meters of the 3,000-meter men’s steeplechase on Wednesday 25 meters behind Conseslus Kipruto. The Kenyan looked back at Jager, then showboated and played up to the Olympic Stadium crowd.
But that didn’t matter to Jager. He knew he was about to make history.
The Jacobs High School grad and Algonquin native came across the line with a time of 8:04.28, screaming and fist pumping his way through the last 10 meters. His medal from the Rio Olympics: silver, the first U.S. man to medal in the event in 32 years.
“It was a lot of years of hard work and day dreaming about the moment all coming true,” Jager said. “It all just happens in five seconds time.”
Jager’s medal hopes never were in doubt from the start. Despite starting on the outside, the Portland resident quickly worked his way into the top five. He crossed the 600-meter mark in second.
Then he made his move, passing Kipruto to take the lead despite plans not to set the pace.
“I wasn’t planning on taking the lead from that far out but in the moment it seemed like something I needed to do,” Jager said.
Jager led the next four laps as he, Kipruto and Ezekiel Kemboi built up a 50-meter gap to fourth. Kipruto sprinted by him at the start of the final lap, bringing Kemboi along with him.
But Jager found speed in the last 200 meters. He passed Kemboi, jumped over the second-to-last barrier and sought to close the gap. Jager ran out of room to catch Kipruto, but celebrated as if he had won.
“I didn’t know that I had a medal wrapped up until about 100 meters to go,” Jager said. “As soon as I got over the last barrier, I could fully enjoy it.”
His second-place finish put the United States on the podium for the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase for the first time since Brian Diemer took bronze in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
Since that medal, Kenya has won 18 medals in the event, including eight straight gold medals.
“Since I started steeplechase, it’s been one of my goals to be in the mix with the Kenyans and beat some of them on the day at the championship races,” Jager said.
The result was no surprise for Jager. He finished sixth in the 2012 London Olympics and scored a second, third and fourth place finish in the 2014 and 2015 Diamond League seasons. He entered the race Wednesday as one of the favorites to medal.
But his calmness surprised him. Jager said he stressed before the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials, but this time he and his teammates stayed more relaxed, even as the race started and his chance at history arrived.
“Myself and a bunch of teammates, we didn’t feel the pressure of it being an Olympic year,” Jager said. “Somehow, I was able to carry that all the way here.”
Seconds after crossing the line, Jager paraded around the stadium, a U.S. flag in tow. He posed for photos as the sparse crowd cheered him and the Kenyans. His smile and joy beamed as he took a victory lap.
“I know how big of an achievement it is,” Jager said. “But I don’t know if it’s hit me yet.”
• Jacob Martella is reporting from the Rio Olympics for the University of Texas at Austin School of Journalism.