One of just a handful of American distance runners picked as likely to medal this summer at the Olympic Games is transplanted Northwesterner Evan Jager. His success in the steeplechase could draw new converts to this entertaining but slightly obscure track and field event.
In fact, Beaverton, Oregon, has already quietly become a hub of world-class steeplechasers.
The 3,000-meter steeplechase has been part of the Summer Olympics for more than a century. But Jager, the American record holder, reports misunderstandings still crop up when he introduces himself.
"When I say I run the steeplechase and you jump over barriers, they say, 'Oh, like the horse racing event?' Yeah, kind of,” Jager said.
It’s forgivable. The horse jumping and footrace share a name and 19th century origins in the British Isles. Today, the running steeplechase entails seven-and-a-half laps around a track with 28 unyielding barriers and seven water jumps along the way.
Even the best racers tumble occasionally. And everyone gets wet feet.
‘Kind of weird, kind of cool’
The event made an early impression on Jager.
"It looked different. It looked kind of weird, kind of cool. It looked fun,” Jager said. “But I just never did it in high school."
Or in college at the University of Wisconsin. In 2009, Jager followed his coach west to the Nike campus outside Portland and became an accomplished professional runner. It wasn't until four years into his pro career that he and his coaches decided to shake things up and actually try that weird, cool event.
"I took to hurdling extremely quickly,” Jager recalled. “After two weeks of practicing, it just felt very comfortable to me and totally normal."
Jager qualified for the London Olympics mere months after taking up the steeplechase. Four years later, he’s 27 years old and aiming for a second Olympics in Brazil.
A ‘total natural’
Jager trains with the Bowerman Track Club, based on the Nike campus in Beaverton. The training group has come to include the number one, number two and number four ranked American steeplechasers plus the top Canadian man along with a female U.S. Olympic steeplechase hopeful.
On a recent weekday morning, head coach Jerry Schumacher put the team -- also stacked with Olympic and World Championship veterans in flat distances -- through a speed workout. He enthusiastically shouted out intermediate split times for the pace he wanted to see on shorter and longer repetitions. The athletes were soon glistening in sweat, but maintained a smooth rhythm despite the high tempo.
"When you have such a strong group, people just want to join this group to train because you benefit from having really good training partners,” Jager said.
Coach Schumacher describes Jager as a "total natural" at the steeplechase. He has the needed "pop in his step” and the athleticism of a basketball player.
"Some distance runners, they try a lay-up and they can't. A lay-up is uncoordinated and difficult for them,” Schumacher explained. “Those aren't the one you want to be doing the steeplechase. Evan can do a lay-up beautifully."
On the court, someone who can float through the air is cool. As for steeplechase:
“Did Evan make it cool? I don’t know,” Schumacher said with a laugh.
First taste comes late
Even if more young people are drawn to the event by the success of the local pros, there are hurdles tougher than a steeplechase water jump.
"Most stadiums don't have that (water pit) already built and the cost factor of putting it in would be too much for most high school programs,” said Lisa Kelly, the athletic director at Kent-Meridian High School outside Seattle.
"The other reason I don't think it would happen at the high school level is the risk management,” Kelly said. “If you have a water hazard on property, now you have to take precautions - not having that available for little kids to go play in or fall in or get hurt."
The steeplechase event is not a part of this month's high school track and field championships in Oregon, Washington or Idaho. Kelly said high school coaches do encourage promising runners to try the steeplechase at invitational meets on college tracks because a good result can draw attention from college recruiters.
“Whether or not college students are more excited about it because Evan made it cool? I don’t know,” Schumacher said. “We’ll see.”
Overcoming a stigma
Jager said the steeplechase used to be seen as an event that you would run if you couldn't compete in the mile or 5,000 meters.
"In the past it had a stigma,” Jager said. “It might still have it now.”
In his case, Jager said he established his credibility as an elite distance runner and then he and his coaches explored and proved he had the additional skills to excel at steeplechase.
"I didn't move to the steeple because I wasn't good at the other events," the Portland resident said. "I just moved to the steeple because I thought that was what my best event would be." In an initial stab at Olympic medal predictions, world rankings panelist for Track and Field News Richard Hymans picked Jager to win a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
Jager said he doesn't let the predictions or expectations of others that he will bring home an Olympic medal from Brazil weigh on him.
"When we get down to it, I'm going to put more pressure on myself than anyone else is going to put on me," the defending U.S. champion said.
A medal in steeplechase for Team USA would be a breakthrough after decades of Kenyan dominance of the event at the Olympics. Jager finished in sixth place in the steeplechase final at the London Games in 2012.
Jager could have lots of company in Rio from other elite Northwest steeplechasers including teammates Andy Bayer, Dan Huling and Matt Hughes, the Canadian champion. Also on the Bowerman Track Club pro team is highly-ranked female steeplechaser Colleen Quigley.
2012 U.S. Olympian Bridget Franek of Team Run Eugene is also in the hunt for a spot on Team USA's steeplechase squad. The U.S. Olympic Track and Field Team Trials take place in early July in Eugene.