Jager's family savors steeplechaser's Olympic run

For Evan Jager, the final will be another new experience

LONDON — The man in the wheelchair on an elevator at Olympic Stadium had an action picture of a runner on his T-shirt. As soon as you saw the runner's trademark shaggy hair and looked again at the man wearing the shirt, the relationship between them was pretty clear.

"Evan actually looks more like my father," Joel Jager said when someone remarked on the resemblance between him and his 23-year-old son, then about to run a semifinal heat of the 3,000-meter steeplechase early Friday afternoon.

Joel Jager, 60, uses a wheelchair more for convenience than necessity. He had polio as a 10-month-old in 1953 and several surgeries left him with a left leg mainly paralyzed below the hip and a brace to support it. Jager had limped around London for several hours after arriving Thursday from their home in Algonquin with his wife, Cathy, and their daughter, Mallory, and he needed to take it easier Friday.

So Cathy went off to her seat in the upper deck. Mallory pushed her dad around a lower concourse searching for a wheelchair accessible place in a stadium packed for the first session of track and field at these Summer Games.

An usher noticed, and they swiftly and surprisingly wound up in VIP seats.

That seemed only right. After all, Evan Jager has quickly and unexpectedly become one of the global VIPs in a race he never had tried until April.

Jager showed that again Friday, easily qualifying for Sunday's final with a second-place finish in just the sixth steeplechase of his career.

The first was April 19 at the Mount Sac Relays in California. The fourth was his June 28 victory at the Olympic trials. The fifth, July 20, was at Monaco, where Jager lowered his personal best by nearly 11 seconds and broke the U.S. record with a time of 8 minutes, 6.81 seconds.

Jager ran 8:16.61 Friday, faster than planned and four seconds faster than the winning time in either of the other two heats. He wanted to run as easily as possible but found himself in the lead with two laps to go and did not want to slow down and let other runners back in the race, since the top four were guaranteed qualifiers.

In the blink of an eye, the Jacobs High School graduate has redefined his parameters for an easy run. His time Friday would have been a personal best just two weeks ago.

"The curve hasn't exactly been gradual, and that is kind of expected my first year," Jager said. "Usually you can drop large chunks of time when you are inexperienced as long as you are fit. I am just happy it has actually turned out the way."

When Jager made the Olympic qualifying standard in his second race, May 18 — despite a face-plant splashdown after one pass over the water jump — his parents decided to book hotels and tickets for a trip to London and Paris. Mallory, a student at San Diego Mesa College, was along for the ride.

"If he didn't make the Olympics, we were just going to call it a 30th anniversary celebration," Joel Jager said. "We have never done big anniversary things."

Joel Jager is a sound and video coordinator and general technician at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington. His wife works part-time at Nelson's Jewelry in Crystal Lake.

They actually hit No. 30 last year. Now they are celebrating it in a way as unexpected as Evan's winding up in the Olympics as the No. 4 seed based on best times this season.

Joel Jager learned 10 years ago that his son could quickly reshape possibilities. They were on a road near Kalamazoo, Mich., one of those rural roads near Joe's boyhood home where intersections are one-half mile apart, and he asked 12-year-old Evan how fast he could run the mile out-and-back. The answer was 6 minutes, 12 seconds.

"How fast do you think you can go if you trained?" Joel asked.

"Five minutes," Evan blurted out.

"If you do, I'll buy you a 5-liter Mustang," said Joel, a car guy.

At the end of his eighth grade track season, Evan won the bet. Joel found a 1989 Mustang 5.0 in Florida for $3,700 on eBay and trucked it home. It stayed in the garage until Evan was old enough to drive.

By then, he was on the way to becoming an Illinois state champion in flat races. The 1,500 and 5,000 were his specialty when he went to the University of Wisconsin for one year before becoming a professional runner and relocating to Oregon in 2008 with his former college coach, Jerry Schumacher, who took over an Oregon Track Club group in Portland.

Trying the steeplechase has been in the back of his mind since a high school coach, Kevin Christian, said Jager had the perfect build for it. The 6-foot, 2-inch Jager has an inseam the same height as the 36-inch barriers a runner must navigate 28 times in the 7 ½ lap race.

"I hardly have to jump at all to get over the barriers," Jager said.

The experiment had to wait until he recovered from surgery in 2010 that inserted two screws to repair the broken navicular bone of his right foot.

"I didn't know exactly how I would handle the event," Jager said. "But I'm just very happy it worked out in my favor as opposed to being a very long learning curve."

The final will be another new experience. Jager never has been in an international championship race, with the elbowing and surges and team tactics of athletes from the distance running powerhouses, Kenya and Ethiopia.

"We're not going to say he's going to medal, but he has a pretty good chance," Joel Jager said. "You don't want to be presumptuous, but it's a possibility."

phersh@tribune.com

Twitter @olyphil
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