LONDON – It didn’t go the way Evan Jager planned in his Olympic debut early Friday afternoon.
But nothing much has lately for the rookie steeplechaser from Jacobs High School.
Jager hoped to get through his semifinal with a minimum of effort.
Instead he found himself in the lead with two laps to go and wound up second while running a time that would have been a personal best two weeks ago.
So a guy who has run just six 3,000-meter steeplechase races in his career qualified easily for Sunday night’s final in 8 minutes, 16.61 seconds, as France’s Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad won the heat in 8:16.23.
Jager had needed only a finish in the top four to guarantee a spot in the final. He sat comfortably behind – but close to - the leaders most of the way.
“The plan was to run as easy as possible, staying controlled, just save as much energy as possible,” Jager said. “With two laps, I just kind of found myself accidentally passing (the leaders). At that point, I didn’t want to slow it down and let guys back into the race, so I made a gradual push toward the end.”
Jager had won the Olympic trials in 8:17.40. On July 20 in Monaco, he set a new U.S. record of 8:06.81.
So taking it easy for him now is remarkably fast, further evidence that he was born to run the steeple rather than the flat races that had been Jager’s focus until this season.
“It has been a really big acceleration in dropping times,” he said. “The curve hasn’t exactly been gradual, and that is kind of expected my first year. Usually you can drop off large chunks of time when you are inexperienced as long as you are fit. I am just happy it has actually turned out that way."
Jager’s semifinal heat would be four seconds faster than either of the other two.
His dad, Joel, has been surprised by Jager’s sudden move into both the event and world elite.
“When he called and said he was doing the steeplechase at Mount Sac, I didn’t expect that,” Joel Jager said an hour before Monday’s race, as he looked for his seat at the Olympic Stadium.
The Mount Sac race April 19 was Jager’s first steeplechase. Three months later, he was fourth-seeded (based on best times this season) of the 39 runners who lined up in the Olympics Friday.