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Track: Evan Jager, Chris Derrick racing to the top

Evan Jager (left) Chris Derrick (right) pose with fan Cindi Mele during recent Twilight Meet NeuquValley High School. |

Evan Jager (left) and Chris Derrick (right) pose with a fan, Cindi Mele, during the recent Twilight Meet at Neuqua Valley High School. | Submitted photo

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Updated: November 24, 2013 6:06AM

Two seconds separated Evan Jager from runner-up Chris Derrick in the 3,200-meter state championship race in the spring of 2007.

Fast forward to the present and the talented athletes are even closer.

What was once a high school rivalry has blossomed into a much deeper bond for Jager and Derrick, who both grew up in the Chicago suburbs and now rank as rising stars for USA Track and Field.

Jager, a 24-year-old from Algonquin, and Derrick, a 23-year-old Naperville native, took different routes to becoming world-class distance runners, but these days they are chasing their goals together as teammates on the Oregon Track Club Elite and roommates in Portland, Ore.

“We work out every day together, sometimes twice a day, and then we come home and hang out,” Jager said. “We’re basically with each other 24-7.”

Jager and Derrick served as emcees at Naperville’s Twilight Invite cross country meet held earlier this month at Neuqua Valley. The event served as a homecoming for Neuqua graduate Derrick and a return to the roots for a pair of runners who parlayed their high school success into bigger and better things in the world of track and field.

Two months ago Jager and Derrick represented the United States at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow. Jager finished in fifth place in the 3,000-meter steeplechase while Derrick finished 18th in the 10,000.

Derrick’s career accomplishments include setting the American collegiate record in the 10,000 in April 2012 during his senior year at Stanford, but his appearance at the World Championships marked his most significant foray onto the global stage since turning pro.

Jager, on the other hand, is well-versed in high-profile competition. Following one year running at Wisconsin he decided to turn pro and follow college coach Jerry Schumacher to Oregon, eventually making an appearance in the 5,000 at the 2009 World Championships.

A right foot injury in 2010 put Jager’s career on hold, but he came back with a vengeance and with a new event in 2012 as a steeplechase runner. He set the American record in only his fifth steeplechase race leading up to a sixth-place finish at the 2012 London Olympics, and this past summer he repeated as the American champion in the event.

“It’s great training with Evan and learning from him,” Derrick said. “He’s only a year older than me, but he turned pro a few years ago and has been doing a lot of this stuff longer. He’s been a great help for me and a great training partner.”

Derrick said he never beat Jager in a race during high school, finishing third when Jager won the 2006 state cross country championship. Derrick went on to win the state cross country title as a senior in 2007 after Jager had graduated from Jacobs High the previous spring.

The two rarely engaged in competition in the time since, with their dual appearance in a 5,000-meter Diamond League race in September in Brussels serving as a rare head-to-head matchup. Both set personal bests in the event, with Jager finishing eighth in 13:02.4 and Derrick taking 11th in 13:08.04.

Both athletes are enjoying some down time now before gearing up for the 2014 season, which is the one year in a four-year cycle that does not include a World Championship or Olympics competition.

“We haven’t set out a schedule yet, but I’ll try to get in some good, fast races in the U.S. and Europe and get more accustomed to competing at the international level,” Derrick said of his path ahead. “I have a couple time goals in mind, but right now I’m mainly focusing on the process and staying healthy.”

For Jager, the 2014 season will be about trying to climb the ranks in the steeplechase, an event long dominated by Kenyan athletes. At this year’s World Championships he ran near the lead with a group of Kenyans for much of the race before fading on the final lap.

“The main focus for next year is the Diamond League circuit, which will be the biggest races of the year in a bunch of cities across Europe,” Jager said. “I want to work on getting my time down a little bit and figure out how to race with the Kenyans and beat them.

“I’ll try a few different things in practice to improve on the last lap. I got closer this year, but there is still a little bit of a gap between me and the top guys.”

Last month Jager was inducted into the Jacobs Hall of Fame, marking one of several public appearances he and Derrick have made during their time in the Chicago area. For both athletes, getting out and about in their old stomping grounds is always welcome.

“It’s really nice to come home to Illinois,” Jager said. “Both Chris and I have a lot of support here. It’s just nice to see people who really appreciate what you’re doing.”

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