Track: Jacobs graduate Evan Jager ready for Olympics
By Erik Jacobsen email@example.com July 24, 2012 5:06PM
Evan Jager celebrates after winning the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the U.S. Olympic Trials last month. The Jacobs graduate will compete in the event at the London Olympics next week. | Andy Lyons~Getty Images
Updated: November 30, 2012 10:27AM
Evan Jager finally took a chance to peek over his right shoulder as he raced down the final straightaway, and what he saw caused an instant reaction.
With no competitor within striking distance, Jager returned his focus to the finish line and stuck out his tongue while breaking into a wide grin. Seconds later, with his blonde hair blowing in the breeze, the Algonquin native and Jacobs High School graduate pumped his right fist and let out a primal yell as he crossed the finish line.
The moment, captured live on cable television, stands as the instant Jager realized his dream of becoming an Olympian.
With his personal-best time of 8:17.4, Jager took first place in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the U.S. Olympic Trials last month at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., landing a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
“It took me about a week to come down from the high off of that race,” Jager said in a telephone interview. “Those first couple days after the race I was absolutely loving life being able to call myself an Olympian.”
He went one better last Friday, setting the U.S. record at the IAAF Track and Field Diamond League Meet in Monaco with a time of 8:06.81 to finish third. Jager’s effort broke the two-year-old U.S. record of Daniel Lincoln, who ran 8:08.82. It was Jager’s fifth time running the steeplechase.
Years of hard work will come to fruition when Jager competes next week at London’s Olympic Stadium. With a global audience watching, the steeplechase preliminaries will be held Aug. 3, the first day of track and field competition. The finals will follow Aug. 5.
From Algonquin to London
Jager, 23, surmises he first began to dream of being an Olympian when he started running competitively as a seventh grader at Westfield Middle School in Algonquin. The odds of that dream coming true seemed much more realistic by the time he graduated from high school in 2007.
When Jager left Jacobs he was one of the most decorated distance runners in Illinois high school history. He earned five state track medals, including state titles in the 3,200 and 1,600. He also medaled each of his final three years in cross country, winning the Class AA state championship as a senior.
But even with all of that success, becoming an Olympian still remained a distant goal.
“You never say this 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kid is going to be an Olympian at some point, but we knew he was special,” Jacobs track coach Jason Borhart said. “You could tell as a coach that he was a once-in-a-lifetime kid, but that doesn’t mean the once-in-a-lifetime kid will be an Olympian.
“I have no idea of what the percentages are of high school coaches that coach an Olympian, but it’s got to be miniscule.”
Switch to steeple pays off
Jager landed a scholarship to Wisconsin, where he competed for one year before deciding to turn professional. He then followed former Wisconsin coach Jerry Schumacher to Portland, Ore., and joined the Oregon Track Club.
A first taste of competing on one of track’s biggest stages came at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin. Jager ran in the 5,000 and finished 11th in his preliminary heat, failing to reach the finals.
His career hit a major road block in the summer of 2010 when he underwent surgery to repair a fractured navicular bone in his right foot. While recovering Jager began to seriously ponder the idea of switching his focus to the steeplechase, an obstacle race that features several ordinary barriers and a water jump on the track.
Jager had never competed in a steeple race, but the possibility had always been a source of interest. He brought up the idea to Schumacher in the spring of 2011, and the pair decided to revisit the idea if Jager stayed healthy throughout the summer.
“I got through the season without any major setbacks and I went into the fall training phase feeling really good, so we started training for the steeple,” Jager said. “We practiced it a lot and did a lot of work over the fall, winter and spring. I would say I took to it very naturally.”
The 2012 season marked the first time Jager competed in the steeplechase, but the lack of experience wasn’t a problem. He entered the U.S. Olympic Trials having already eclipsed the Olympic qualifying standard, and his confidence is soaring going into London given his stellar showing at the trials.
“While I was (at the 2009 World Championships), I wasn’t even close to being competitive,” Jager said. “Now I actually feel like I have a chance to be up there, be in the mix and be competitive with these guys.
“The Kenyans are running sub-8 pretty consistently ..., so I know I still have a long ways to go. But I feel like I’m finally starting to reach that point where I think I can be competitive at the world level.”
Focused on task at hand
Jager remained in Oregon for two weeks following the Olympic Trials and continued to train with his Oregon Track Club coaches and teammates. He left for Europe on July 16 and enhanced his confidence in the Monaco Diamond League meet as one final tuneup prior to the Olympics.
Following the race in Monaco, Jager planned to spend his time leading up to the Olympic preliminaries by training at the Oregon Track Club’s facility in The Netherlands in an effort to block out distractions during what he expects will be a physically and emotionally draining Olympic experience.
However, Jager said he has allowed for one slice of personal satisfaction to work its way onto his schedule as he plans to attend Friday’s Opening Ceremonies and walk into Olympic Stadium with the rest of the U.S. Olympic delegation.
“The Opening Ceremonies are definitely something I’m looking forward to experiencing, and stories and imagination I’m sure will be nothing like the actual experience itself,” Jager said. “I definitely want to take advantage of the chance to experience everything there will be to experience in London before doing what I need to do to regroup and focus on my athletic performances.”
Support on the home front
Throughout the Fox Valley and beyond there is palpable support for Jager, something he learned first hand following his victory at the Olympic Trials.
“I didn’t get a hold of my phone until probably a few hours after that race,” Jager said. “I had tons of texts, phone calls, voice mails, a lot of Twitter messages, a lot of Facebook messages. It was just people from all over the place congratulating me and supporting me, which was really awesome to see.”
As Borhart explains, the outpouring of congratulations should come as no surprise.
“Evan is a great runner obviously, but he’s also a good kid, and I think that’s why so many people are happy and excited for him,” Borhart said. “A lot of people connected with him when he was coming through Jacobs.”
When Jager steps on the track for his preliminary heat in the steeplechase Aug. 3, half a world away in Algonquin there will be thousands of eyes glued to the television set to see the village’s native son compete on his sport’s biggest stage.
Jager is not only aware of the excitement his trip to London has created, but he’s also eager to create another lasting memory for his many supporters.
“It was a really special moment, even though I didn’t know it at the time, to be able to share an experience like making the Olympic team with everybody who has supported me over the last few years,” Jager said. “It’s great going into the Olympics knowing I have people back home — whether it’s close friends, family, classmates from high school or people that I haven’t met before — watching and supporting me. And hopefully I’ll be able to share another great moment with all of these people.”