It’s September 2012 and Evan Jager is sitting centre court in a gymnasium in his home town of Algonquin in Illinois, watching a high school dance routine.
In front of him are 21 girls with black and gold pompoms, punching and jumping in tune to the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ cover version of the old Stevie Wonder song Higher Ground.
They are performing to an audience of hundreds of people who are solely here to shake Jager's hand, or to get an autograph, or maybe snap a picture.
Rewind five years to 2007 and Jager, then 18 but who still has the same distinctive shaggy haircut under his backwards baseball cap, was sitting on the other side of these performances, in the bleachers as a student.
The difference now is the reason the dancers are dancing and the audience is cheering; it's because they now know an Olympic finalist and US record-holder. That man is Evan Jager.
“My idea was I would just show up and talk for a little bit and say thank you for supporting me throughout the year, maybe sign some autographs,” said Jager modestly, who reduced the US 3000m steeplechase record to 8:06.81 at the Samsung Diamond League Meeting in Monaco in July.
“When I got there and saw how big it was, I started getting really nervous,” he joked, despite having performed in front of crowd of 80,000 at the London 2012 Olympic Games, where he finished sixth over the barriers.
The turnout may be amazing, at least to Jager, but it’s only fair. For four months this summer, from April to August, he continually surprised the US and the rest of the world in the steeplechase.
In April he made his debut in the event and won one of the most competitive domestic meetings in the US at the Mt. SAC Relays, an appetiser before his feats in Monaco and London.
For some athletes, a year like this could be a career pinnacle but he’s too young to have peaked.
However, Jager’s story doesn’t start in 2012. It actually begins in 2008 when he dropped out of university.
As a four-time Illinois state champion while at high school, Jager was heavily recruited by the best universities in the country before finally deciding on the University of Wisconsin, which is based in Madison, primarily because of the presence of their renowned coach Jerry Schumacher.
Jager finished school in 2007 but a year later Schumacher announced he was leaving the university to join the coaching staff of the Nike Oregon Project in Portland.
In a letter that Jager's father Joel wrote to Schumacher, he asked: “Is there any chance you’d take Evan with you?”
Schumacher was already coaching a few post-collegiate athletes in Madison, including former Wisconsin students like Chris Solinsky and Matt Tegenkamp, as well as Canada's Simon Bairu. The plan was that they would follow their coach west. (All would eventually set national records under Schumacher’s coaching.)
“But Evan was an addition to the plan,” admitted Schumacher.
Head for heights
It’s not that Jager didn’t show promise, he was eighth in the 2008 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships 1500m as a true freshman (first year university student) but Schumacher says Jager’s distinguishing characteristic has always been his mindset.
“When I approached Nike with it, I said, ‘This kid’s not only got the physical tools and the capabilities, but he’s got the head for it, and he knows what he wants. He knows he wants to compete in the Olympic Games; he wants to be at the World Championships; and he knows that as a freshman,’” said Schumacher.
“I knew I wanted to run professionally,” reflected Jager. “So the idea was if I could get out and start, and racing as a professional four years earlier, it was going to benefit me over my peers.”
So Jager dropped out of Wisconsin days before the end of his second year and moved to Portland to embark on a professional running career, as well as enrolling at the local Portland State University.
A year later, at the US National Championships, Schumacher’s group pulled off a now-famous clean sweep of the medals in the 5000m.
Jager, now 19, finished third in a personal best of 13:22.18 in just his second competitive race over the distance and, as the championships were also the trials for the 2009 IAAF World Championships, he found himself heading to Berlin.
And this is where the steeplechase comes in
The exact time when the event was brought up has become apocryphal in and around the Schumacher camp.
Schumacher says that he and his assistant coach Pascal Dobert - the latter a 2000 Olympian and three-time US champion in the event - were talking about it as early as 2009 but because Jager had foot problems in 2010 they shelved any further discussion.
Joel Jager said his son talked to him in the summer of 2011 about it but Evan told him to “keep this under wraps.”
The runner himself insists the idea came from an aside by a coach when he was in high school after Jager had been fooling around with the high jump and cleared 1.78m his first practice.
Regardless of when the idea was first mooted, when Jager actually got going in the autumn of 2011 it was obvious to Schumacher and anyone who watched his training that he was a natural.
“Right from the very beginning he just had natural aptitude for hurdling. It was second nature; it was easy for him... then you open up with your first steeple ever and run 8:26. Eh, you’re probably pretty good at it,” said Schumacher.
“I love it, yeah. Ever since the first time I did it; even that first workout, a 10x400m over barriers cutting from 70 seconds to 63 on the last. It felt so natural. I finished the workout with a smile on my face because I had fun,” added Jager.
In his first race, he ran 8:26.14 at the Mt. SAC Relays. The next month, despite falling flat on his face in the water pit on his last lap, he ran 8:20.90 at another race in California.
Four-year-old bet pays off
After only racing the event twice, he dominated at the US Olympic Trials, winning in a personal best of 8:17.40 in the final before setting off for Europe.
In Monaco, which could be argued was his first real test, he broke the national record for third place, behind the Kenyan pair of Conseslus Kipruto and Paul Koech.
In his last steeplechase of the year, he produced the highest finish by an American at the Olympic Games since 1996.
There is still the mild distraction of a university degree to finish and Jager hopes to graduate in the autumn of next year, but he believes his 2012 season is only a precursor of things to come.
“When I signed my letter of intent (in high school, to go to Wisconsin), I knew that my official running career was starting,” commented Jager.
“Where my heart was from then on was in running, and I knew that’s what I really wanted to do. At that point, all my chips had been pushed in.”
Jon Gugala for the IAAF