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Climbing the ladder

U.S. steeplechase record-holder Evan Jager ready to make global mark


by: TRIBUNE PHOTOS: JONATHAN HOUSE - Three-time U.S. steeplechase champion Evan Jager (right) leads training partner Daniel Huling around the track during a Portland-area training run.The tattoo along the right side of Portland’s Evan Jager’s chest is hard to miss as he trains shirtless on a warm summer morning, though Jager’s 6-2, 145-pound frame is so lean that, as he turns sideways, he is apt to almost disappear.

The five Olympic rings — black, blue, green, yellow, red — were inked during a visit to Jager’s hometown of Algonquin, Ill., in the weeks following his sixth-place finish in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2012 Olympic Games.

“A lot of athletes had gotten it done,” Jager says. “I’d said to myself, ‘If I ever get to the Olympics, I want to get that done.’ I thought it looked really cool.”

Jager has looked pretty cool just about every time he has taken the track over the past three years. The 25-year-old former Wisconsin runner has an American record, three straight U.S. championships and a current No. 5 world ranking — behind four Kenyans — in the steeplechase.

“Evan’s one of the best in the world,” says training partner Daniel Huling, No. 12 on the 2014 world list himself. “And he’s still learning the event.”

In an IAAF Diamond League meet June 11 at Oslo, Jager finished second in a world-class field in 8:06.97 — 0.16 of a second shy of the American record he set in 2012.

“It didn’t catch me off guard,” Jager says. “I’d come off running a 13:08 5K at Stanford (two weeks before). For me, 5K fitness has always translated well to the steeple. I knew I was ready to put myself in the mix with the guys competing to win.”

The winner was 2014 world leader Jairus Kipchoge Birech, 21, who established a personal record of 8:02.37 while running away with victory. Jager, meanwhile, just missed out on a lucrative bonus from his sponsor, Nike, had he bettered his American record.

“I wasn’t pissed, but it would have been nice to get that,” Jager says. “I could have run a little faster. That was the hardest steeple I’ve ever run. We were out about four to five seconds faster through the first (kilometer) than I’ve ever gone out. I led for about a lap and ran on my own the last lap, well behind Birech.

“To come away second and getting that close to the American record, I was totally pleased with that. The cherry on top would have been getting the record.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Three-time U.S. steeplechase champion Evan Jager.Jager will get a few more opportunities this summer. He left Tuesday for Monaco, where he’ll run in a loaded steeplechase field on Friday.

“We’re undecided about his schedule after that,” says Jager’s coach, Jerry Schumacher of the Nike Oregon Project. “He’ll stay in Europe to train for about five weeks. Then there is a big steeple in Brussels (on Sept. 5) and maybe the Continental Cup the following week in Morocco.”

Could Jager’s American record fall sometime during the summer?

“I think so,” he says. “I’m learning the event better. We’re going to get in a few fast steeple races. I’m a year older, a year stronger. I’m healthy — knock on wood.

“The Kenyans are good enough to where most of the Diamond League races are being won faster than my PR. If a good race presents itself and I don’t have to do too much work on my own, I’m thinking it should come.”

Asked for his thoughts on a record attempt, Schumacher shrugs.

“It’s always a tough question,” he says. “Evan is running at such a high level already. To improve off a high level is not easy to do. But there’s more time to cut (from Jager’s steeplechase PR), for sure.

“But I don’t think his summer will be just about the steeple. He ran the 5,000 in 13:02 last year, and he could PR there in the right race. And maybe he’ll get into a fast 1,500 as well.”

•••

What is most amazing is how far Jager has come in such a short time. An accomplished distance runner who has a mile PR of 3:53.33 and made the U.S. World Championships team at 5,000 in 2009, Jager had never tried a steeplechase until 2012, running 8:26.14 at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif. Three months later, he was the American record-holder.

“I fell in love with the event right away,” he says.

“Evan’s a natural athlete to begin with,” Schumacher says. “His running style and mechanics are conducive to the steeplechase. After we got into it, it was pretty obvious he’d be good at it.”

“With Evan, it’s a double-edged sword,” says Huling, who joined the NOP in 2013. “He’s a beautiful hurdler, and he has the flat chops to back it up.”

Jager had followed Schumacher to Portland when he joined Alberto Salazar to coach runners with NOP in 2008. Jager had just finished a promising freshman year under Schumacher at Wisconsin.

“Jerry had been the reason I went there,” Jager says. “When he left, I didn’t know what to do. I thought about staying there, or transferring to another school. When the option came about to come out here and join him, that was what I wanted to do the most.

“I was pretty confident had I finished out my collegiate career, I was going to join his group out here. Being able to stay with him through the next three years, I said, ‘Why not?’”

While training under Schumacher and running professionally under the Nike umbrella, Jager has progressed to within about a term of earning a degree at Portland State in health studies.

And he has become the premier steeplechaser in the country, gaining the third of a string of U.S. titles with a win in the searing heat of Sacramento last month.

“I’m pumped about it,” Jager says. “I’m going to try to keep the streak going as long as I can. You have to be happy when you step onto the track and call yourself a national champion.”

It almost didn’t happen. Schumacher had mentioned the steeplechase not long after they arrived together in Portland. But in 2010, Jager sustained a navicular bone fracture that laid him up for the good part of two years.

“I was a little uncertain about it, because of the extra pressure and torque (the steeplechase) puts on the foot,” Schumacher says. “They shoot horses when they break it, right? There’s just so much more pressure and torque on your feet. You have to be careful with it.

“As 2011 ended and Evan was healthy, we talked about it again and decided to give it a shot. But it has all happened much faster than we ever anticipated.”

With only two steeplechases under his belt, Jager won the 2012 Olympic trials race going away in 8:17.40. Weeks later, he took down Daniel Lincoln’s American record by more than two seconds in 8:06.81.

“I didn’t realize at the time how crazy that was,” Jager says. “I was on such a high, coming off the U.S. trials. I knew I was really fit. I thought I might have had a chance to run around 8:10 or 8:08. It was exciting and gave me a huge amount of confidence going into the London Olympics.”

Jager ran well at London, finishing behind four Africans and runner-up Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad of France. Jager took the lead with three laps to go and remained in the lead pack until 300 meters remained.

“I was bummed initially,” he says. “I’d run so well at Monaco that I’d kind of given myself a false hope that I could come away with a shocker of a race at London. I didn’t necessarily think I was in the top three, but I thought if things played out perfectly, I could steal a medal.

“Getting run away from so easily by five guys on the last lap was demoralizing. It was kind of a slap in the face. I realized how much work I still need to do.”

Jager enjoyed a solid 2013 season and took another step in the World Championships at Moscow, placing fifth, but finishing fewer than three seconds behind champion Ezekiel Kemboi of Kenya.

“I ran one of my best steeple races ever, and was a lot closer to the medals than I was at London,” Jager says. “I took a step in the right direction. Dan congratulated me as soon as he saw me, which made me realize I should probably be happy with where I’m at.”

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portlands Evan Jager, who has won three American steeplechase titles since taking up the event in 2012, gets some training advice from coach Jerry Schumacher.

•••

Though he is one of the premier distance runners in the nation, Jager saunters about in anonymity in his adopted hometown. Fellow Nike Oregon Project runners Galen Rupp and Mo Farah occasionally may get recognized in Portland, but it rarely happens with the greatest steeplechaser in American history.

“The only time is when I’m doing any sort of Nike appearance,” Jager says. “It’s very rare for someone to randomly come up to me and say hi.

“It would be nice to have track and field be more popular, but I’m not sure if I would enjoy being recognized more often. I’m fine with being able to go out and not have people come up all the time.”

Jager lived in downtown Portland until last year. Now he lives in a rented five-bedroom house in Southwest Portland, just a mile and a half from the Nike campus, with fellow Nike Oregon Project runners Elliott Heath, Chris Derrick, German Fernandez and Ryan Hill.

“It’s pretty tame,” Jager says. “We’re all pretty exhausted with our busy lives. We don’t do much besides running, eating, sleeping and watching SportsCenter. But it’s a good group. We’ve managed to keep it relatively clean for five 20-something guys.”

Jager says he has grown to love the city of Portland.

“It has a really great character to it,” he says. “It’s a small enough city where you feel really at home. You don’t feel lost in the size of it. I wish it were sunnier during the winter, but aside from that, I don’t have many complaints.”

Jager’s relationship with Schumacher now covers seven years.

“Everything I know about running has pretty much come from Jerry,” Jager says. “He’s been a huge influence in my career. The guys I train with have been an enormous amount of support, too. And Nike ... went out on a huge limb, taking me on as a 19-year-old kid with one year of college under my belt and nothing more than an All-America finish in the 1,500 and Jerry’s recommendation.”

As he has achieved success on the track, Jager hasn’t changed as a person.

“Very unassuming,” Schumacher says. “You’d never know (he is an American record-holder). Laid-back. He’s always in a good mood. Great teammate, great kid, well-liked by everybody.”

“He’s very positive,” Huling says. “He’s like the antithesis of me. I’m kind of a pessimist when it comes to running. I’ve been trying to adopt some of his traits going into races.”

•••

World-class steeplechasers can continue into their early 30s. Jager is still young, and relatively new at his event. He is looking to begin a move up the ladder internationally with a strong finish this summer.

“Hopefully, I can finish in the top three in the rest of the steeples I run this year,” he says. “I’d love to be able to improve on my top-five ranking. If I could get a top-three ranking by the end of the year, that would be incredible.

“But that’s the last thing I’ll think about going into those races. I’ll be competing and hanging in with all the top guys and trying to go for the win.”

There’s no question what Jager’s next major goal will be — to medal at the 2015 World Championships in Beijing and at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The last U.S. Olympic steeplechase medalist was Brian Diemer, who won bronze in 1984. There has never been an American win a medal in the event at the World Championships.

“It would be really cool to be able to put myself in the top three in the next two championships,” he offers.

There are plenty of great Africans to go through to reach that level, of course.

“The odds aren’t in his favor, but he’s still really young,” says Huling, 31. “And what he did this year in Oslo was very impressive.”

Schumacher knows it won’t happen with one quantum leap.

“The plan is to continue doing what he’s doing,” the coach says. “Now that Evan is competitive at the international level, he can start thinking about, ‘How do I finish in the top three on the biggest stage?’ That’s the World Championships and the Olympic Games. That’s the big push now — to find a way to climb up on that stage.”

If Jager does, he might be inclined to head back to Algonquin for another tattoo. One colored in bronze, silver or gold.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers