(Updated August 3, 2 p.m. EDT)
The last American to win an Olympic medal in the men’s 3000-meter steeplechase was Brian Diemer, who earned bronze in 1984.
Could Evan Jager be the next?
“Oh yeah, absolutely,” said Marc Davis, a 1996 Olympian and the 1993 U.S. champion in the event.
“I think so,” said Tim Broe, a 2004 Olympian at 5000 meters and the 2000 NCAA champion in the steeplechase who finished fourth that year in the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials. “If he has a good race, he can medal for sure.”
Those are heady expectations for a 23-year-old who competed in his first steeplechase less than four months ago, but the talk is not unfounded: On July 20, in his first international race, Jager set an American record when he finished third at the Diamond League meeting in Monaco in 8:06.81,
“I knew I had the ability to run faster there than I did in the Trials,” Jager said 48 hours later, after returning to his European base in the Netherlands. “My workout went really, really well right before Monaco so I knew I was in for a really big race; I knew I could go under 8:10 if I ran really well. But 8:06? I hadn’t even thought of that.”
Neither had anyone else. Going into the race, Jager’s personal best was his winning time of 8:17.40 from the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.
“It’s shocking,” said Davis. “It’s phenomenal that such a technical event can be mastered so quickly. It should have probably taken him a couple of years, minimum.”
Broe was less surprised that an athlete of Jager’s ability picked up the event with such ease—Jager made the U.S. team for the 2009 IAAF World Championships when he was only 20 years old—but readily added, “I didn’t expect he’d run 8:06 right away. He’s probably got a couple more seconds in him [in the Olympic final].
The 2008 Olympic steeplechase was won in 8:10.34.
“He’s just got a lot of natural ability for it, honestly,” said Pascal Dobert, a two-time Olympic steeplechaser who, along with Schumacher, coaches Jager for the OTC Elite. “I’ve never seen anyone in my life who comes off the barrier as well as he does. If you were to design the ideal steeplechaser, you would come up with Evan.”
Jager’s trajectory began on April 19, when he ran 8:26:14 at the Mt. SAC Relays in his steeplechase debut. A month later, on May 18, he easily bettered the Olympic “A” standard of 8:23.10 with his time of 8:20.90 at the USATF High Performance meet in Eagle Rock, CA, despite belly-flopping into the water pit on the last lap.
At the Trials, Jager won his semi-final race before the finals victory in 8:17.40. Three weeks later he ran the stunning 8:06.81, breaking the six-year-old American record of 8:08.82, set by Daniel Lincoln, by almost two seconds.
“For the rest of the night I was just kind of sitting there hanging out and all of a sudden I’d just think, ‘holy cow, I just set the American record. I’m the American record-holder in the steeple,’” Jager recalled. “When you get to say something like that, it’s pretty cool and pretty humbling. Now, I’ve got a little bit more work to do.”
The fast time whisked Jager, an Illinois native who left the University of Wisconsin after his freshman year to follow coach Jerry Schumacher to Portland, immediately into the medal discussion. He said the talk wouldn’t affect him, that “just making it to the final will be a very hard task in itself.”
Entering Friday's first round, Jager had the fourth-fastest time in the field for 2012. In his heat, the first of three, Jager finished second in 8:16.61, which would hold up as the second-fastest time of the day, to automatically qualify for Sunday's final, at 4:25 p.m. EDT. There, he will be joined by USA teammate Donn Cabral, the 2012 NCAA Champion out of Princeton, who finished fourth in his qualifying heat. It marks the first time in 16 years, since the 1996 Atlanta Games, that the U.S. will have two finalists in the men's steeplechase.