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Portland steeplechaser Evan Jager owns U.S. record, Olympic silver medal, and has more success in mind

TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Portland's Evan Jager has been desribed as a 'total natural' at the steeplechase.As unlikely Olympic silver medalists go, Evan Jager is at or near the top of the list.

In 2012, the native of Algonquin, Illinois, was a national-caliber distance runner, but had never run the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

Four years later, Jager reigned as an Olympic runner-up and the greatest American steeplechaser, by a lot.

When Jager crossed the finish line behind Kenya's Consesius Kipruto to claim silver at Rio de Janeiro last August, it was validation of a pair of major changes in his life.

Jager moved from Madison, Wisconsin, to Portland in 2008 to follow his college coach, Jerry Schumacher, who had been hired by Nike to coach professional runners.

After running flat races his first three years — and dealing with injury problems that slowed his progress — Jager switched to the steeplechase in 2012. He made his debut at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, California, that April, winning in 8 minutes, 26.14 seconds. In June, he won the Olympic Trials in 8:17.40 in just his fourth crack at the event. Two weeks later, he broke the American record for the first time, clocking 8:06.81.

Schumacher and assistant coach Pascal Dobert — a three-time national champion and a 2000 Olympian in the steeplechase — mulled over the change from flat races.

"A lot of it hinged on whether Evan could hurdle," Schumacher says. "Pascal put him over a barrier one day in practice. We watched, and Pascal turned to me and said, 'A total natural.' Usually it takes time to learn to hurdle. Evan moved over the barriers pretty darn well.

"Then we went, 'OK, now can he put the whole package together — hurdle, water jump and so on?' The answer came immediately."

Four months after his first steeplechase, Jager finished sixth at the London Olympic Games, and immediately set a goal — to medal at a World Championships or Olympics competition. Over the next three years, he was close, placing fifth in 2013 and sixth in 2015, both at the World Championships. Then the breakthrough at Rio.

"It was a dream come true," Jager says.

The medal-winning performance, Schumacher says, was a matter of time.

"It's the culmination of years of learning and training," the veteran coach says. "Evan was learning the event and figuring out things about himself that he can do. He wanted an Olympic medal very badly. He put a lot of hard work, drive and focus into attaining a goal."

The 6-2, 145-pound Jager now owns not just the American record — 8:00.45 at Paris in 2015 despite falling to the track after negotiating the final barrier — but the seven fastest times in U.S. history. The next-fastest U.S. runner is Daniel Lincoln, who clocked 8:08.82 in 2006.

At Rio, Jager became both the highest U.S. Olympic finisher in the steeplechase since 1952, when Horace Ashenfelter took gold in Helsinki, and the first U.S. steeple medalist since 1984, when Brian Diemer took bronze in Los Angeles.

And Jager accomplished it in an event that has been absolutely dominated by East African runners for years. Starting with Qatar's Saif Saeed Shaheen, who set the world record of 7:53.63 in 2004, East Africans have the 37 best times in history.

"The steeplechase is the end-all, be-all of Kenyan events," Schumacher says. "Evan has proven time and time again whether, in Diamond League events or World Championships or Olympics Games or via time, that he's in the game with the best runners in the world in the event. But getting the silver medal solidified his standing as one of the few to break up the East African domination of the event."TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - JAGER

Jager's Olympic feat, though, was the second-most important event of 2016 for him.

In October, he married the former Sofia Hellberg-Jonsen in Stockholm, Sweden.

The newlyweds have settled into their new home in Northwest Portland. Sofia has returned to her marketing job with a construction company in the city. Jager is back in training for the 2017 season.

"I'm a married man, a homeowner and a pet owner," says Jager, 28. "Checked everything off the list except having a kid."

Jager says he has very much enjoyed a more laid-back schedule after the Olympic year hubbub.

"Last year was an insane year," he says. "We got married very soon after the track season ended. We had a wedding reception for all of my family who couldn't make it (to Sweden) in Chicago. Sofia's mother came out to visit; we had friends in to visit. Then I went up to train at altitude.

"So the year was packed and crazy, but also fun. It's been nice being in Portland just with each other for a while. We've had some time to relax and wind down. It's been great."

In the final at Rio, Jager didn't want to leave it to tactics in a field blessed with great kickers, including Ezekial Kemboi, the top steeplechaser of all-time, with six titles (two Olympics, four World Championships) under his belt.

Jager took the lead midway through the race and held it for three laps until Kipruto passed him, followed by Kemboi, with 600 meters left. Jager didn't die, going by Kemboi before the final barrier and trailing Kipruto to the tape. Kipruto won in 8:03.28, with Jager second in 8:04.28. Kemboi finished third but was later disqualified for stepping off the track after the final water jump.

Did Jager run his best possible race?

"I think so, especially how the race played out," he says. "I wanted to make sure it was a fast race. I moved to the front, kept the pedal going, and when you're in front for so long, it's mentally taxing.

"When Kipruto made the move, I stayed on him, regrouped and got ready for the last 400. Kemboi and I both tried to respond, but neither of us had enough to stay with that big of a move. I knew with 200 left (Kemboi) was fading a little bit and I still had enough left to get him. To get the silver was pretty incredible."

Life after Rio, Jager says, "really hasn't changed at all, which is nice. I got right back into life, and I like it that way. It's better for my motivation level going forward to not constantly think about the fact that I achieved one of the biggest prizes in the sport. I've put the blinders on and keep looking forward and setting new goals."

Jager received bonus money from USA Track & Field and from his two endorsement contracts — with Nike and Hotshot, an anti-cramping drink — which provided living expenses and helped with a down payment on his house.

"But honestly, money isn't the reason why I do this sport," he says. "Everything I get is icing on the cake. If I could have done what I did last year without getting a single dime, I would have still been just as happy."

Jager has worked slowly into the 2017 season. He ran a couple of races during the indoor season and went with Schumacher's Bowerman Track Club group to train at altitude in Park City, Utah, for four weeks during the winter. He opened his outdoor season at the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford last Friday, placing eighth in the 1,500 in 3:43.4.

"That was mostly to blow the pipes open a little bit, clean off some rust and use it as a jump start for training for the next month leading into the Prefontaine Classic," he says.

Jager probably will run a mile at the Pre meet in Eugene on May 27. After that, he'll attempt to hike his record string of U.S. steeplechase titles to six at the nationals June 23-25 at Sacramento, California. The streak is meaningful, and he'd love for it to continue.

"I think it's cool," he says. "There's definitely motivation for me to keep it going. It's getting harder. Every year, the competition in the U.S. has elevated. The success I've had puts a little more pressure on me to control the race. I feel like the guys are keying on me.

"It's a little more stressful and harder both physically and mentally to control the race and still win, but it's a really fun challenge. It makes it exciting. It would feel weird if I didn't think of myself as the guy with the target on his back. It's good for the event and good for me as well. I know I can't slack off and just expect to show up to the USAs and win."

Jager must finish in the top three at Sacramento to qualify for the U.S. team that will compete in the World Championships at London in August.

"I had a couple of little injuries during the winter that held my training back," he says. "Nothing major — just annoying and frustrating. But I'm feeling better, and my goal is to make the team, then get to London and have another duel with Consesius."

Jager would like to set a PR this year and become the first American to break the eight-minute barrier. That would be unlikely to happen at London, but perhaps at a Diamond League meet Sept. 1 at Brussels, Belgium.

"I'm hoping to be in shape to run a really fast steeple there," he says.

Schumacher wouldn't be surprised.

"Evan scared the 8-minute barrier at Paris in 2015," he says. "We were looking at 7:57 had he not fallen. He has unfinished business in terms of overall time and where we believe he can get to. And frankly, he's a silver medalist, not a gold medalist. So there is work yet to be done.

"It would be great if there were an opportunity to run a big one this year. But if not, next year there will be quite a few opportunities, and we could go after it then."

Jager would love to compete for gold at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo and the 2021 World Championships in Eugene.

"I think I have five more good years in me," he says. "Motivation and how my 32-year-old body holds up will be the deciding factors. But I still have time to meet my ultimate goal."

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@kerryeggersTRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Evan Jager of Portland, one of the top steeplechasers in the world, trains on the track at the Nike World Campus.