With his long blonde locks and trademark headband, emerging US steeplechaser Evan Jager has definitely caught the eye. He’s also enjoyed a pretty sensational rookie season.
Top-level US chasers have been as rare as hen’s teeth in recent decades. Their last men’s Olympic medallist came five years before Jager was born, in the shape of Brian Diemer, who won bronze at Los Angeles ’84.
Jager, 23, shattered the US steeplechase record with a stunning 8:06.81 in Monaco in July, the eighth fastest time of the year, and then finished sixth in the Olympic final. Not bad for an athlete who only took up the event this year, and has raced in only seven steeplechases.
“Now that I’ve had some time to think about everything, I am very happy with how my season went,” says Jager from his base in Portland, Oregon. “I obviously wish I could have won a medal at the Olympics, but I feel like my season went just about as well as it could have gone.”
Born and raised in the village of Algonquin, Illinois it is no exaggeration to describe his rise as meteoric. With no family background in athletics, he discovered a gift for endurance by putting in some lung-busting displays on the soccer pitch.
“I used to run the entire game without needing a sub and I usually did it faster than everyone else too.”
By 2008 he’d won the US national junior 1500m title, and later that year he finished eighth at the World Junior Championships in Poland.
A year later he finished third in the 5000m, in a personal best time of 13:22.18, at the US Championships and made the senior World Championships team for Berlin 2009.
His upwardly mobile progression was cruelly halted by a stress fracture in 2010. Jager described the injury as a “major physical and mental blow.”
“After my surgery it took just over a year to feel completely normal running again.”
Jager’s fortunes changed when his long-time coach Jerry Schumacher suggested he switch to the steeplechase for the 2012 season.
“It was not a difficult decision,” says Jager. “Both my coach and I felt it would be my best event. I think there are a few things that help me to be good at the steeplechase. I have really long legs and I am pretty bouncy when I run, so it is not that difficult for me to get over the barriers.
“Also, I feel like I can jump pretty high for a runner, which helps in clearing the water pit. I also feel like the 3km distance is a very good distance for me.”
Jager only made his steeplechase debut in April, running 8:26.14 in Walnut. Just three races later (including the heats at the Olympics Trials) he had won the US title. In his first European race he broke the US record.
“I thought there was a possibility to break the American record but I was shocked I broke the American record by so much [two seconds].”
“I don’t think I’ve earned the top Kenyan steeplechasers respect yet, nor do I think I deserve it,” he says. “I had one good race in Monaco in a rabbited race, but like any other sport, I think runners are ultimately judged on how well they do in championship events. I don’t think I’ve proven myself in a championship setting yet.”