By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
EUGENE, OR (08-Jul) -- With supreme tactics and a knack for making the right move at the right time, Evan Jager solidified his position as America's top steeplechaser today, winning the Olympic Trials race in 8:22.48 here at Historic Hayward Field. Jager grabbed the lead with just over a mile left and didn't give up any ground, taking first for his fifth consecutive national championships. He also successfully defended his 2012 Olympic Trials crown.
PHOTO: Don Cabral, Hillary Bor and Evan Jager on the final lap of the steeplechase final at the 2016 USA Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon (Photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)
"I found myself there and I decided to go for it," said Jager, clutching an American flag and tiger stuffed animal. "I just tried running pretty hard for the last three laps. It was tough!"
Though Jager was the clear winner, the race behind him would be covered by a cloud of controversy. The final water jump played host to a shakeup atop the leaderboard, as Jager's Nike Bowerman Track Club teammate Andy Bayer got clipped and went from second to fourth in a matter of meters. While Bayer lost all momentum, Hillary Bor and Donn Cabral moved into second and third, running through the line in 8:24.10 and 8:26.37, respectively. Bayer was fourth in 8:28.59.
As Jager, Bor, and Cabral did their victory lap, Bayer spoke to the media and assured a protest would be filed. He said Bor clipped him approaching the water jump and impeded his progress, causing Bayer to land awkwardly flat footed and lose multiple positions. Stanley Kebenei, who was also impacted by the shuffling, fell to the track and wound up fading all the way to 13th (he was second at the bell).
"It's frustrating. I don't want it to happen like this but I mean I do feel like he impeded me," said an even-keeled Bayer, wiping sweat from his brow while explaining the situation. "You have to follow the rules. We'll see."
The jostling wasn't just in the last lap. Cabral said there was plenty of "reckless running" from the first kilometer onward, and caused him to adjust his race plan accordingly. Not wanting to name names without having seen a race replay first, Cabral simply said it was excessive. "It looked a little bit reckless to me what was going on. I'm not trying to call anyone out cause I don't know exactly what happened. But I know I was cut off a couple of times throughout the race."
After officials reviewed the tape, they decided the results would stand as they appeared on the Hayward Field video board immediately after the race: Jager first, Bor second, and Cabral third. No action would be taken to disqualify anyone. Bor said that he did not remember or recall clipping anyone in the final lap. "I don't remember having any contact," said the U.S. Army athlete again at the post-race press conference.
Credit for the race breaking open and becoming a true test goes to Jager, who helped adjust the pace from stagnant 70's to speedy 62's in the last kilometer. The injection of speed served to string out the field and drop the early leader, NCAA champion Mason Ferlic.
Jager is the sixth Nike Bowerman Track Club member to qualify for Team USA. He said it's a bit bittersweet this time around, winning while knowing his teammates Bayer and Dan Huling (9th place) would not be headed to Rio. He felt especially bad for Bayer.
"You want it as bad for them as you want it yourself," he said. "I could almost say I wanted it more for them."
As calculated as Jager's move was, Bor and Cabral ran smart races as well, moving up slowly through the field before pouncing onto the podium with 150 to go. Cabral was a 2012 Olympic finalist and knew he must maintain a steady mindset in the final lap to score a spot on the Olympic team.
"I just tried to cover [Bayer's] gap and stay on him. It wasn't really going so well. I started having doubts in my head," Cabral began. "I was getting pretty pessimistic about things until Hillary blew by me on the backstretch to add insult to injury. I'm not very proud of my race but I am proud that I stayed calm and stayed in it as much as I could."
Reflecting on the day and the consistent high performance of the Bowerman Track Club here this week, Jager thought back to the early days when he joined coach Jerry Schumacher in Wisconsin as a teenager.
"We train really hard," he began. "We train hard and it's a good team mentality. We've had great leaders really build this team. We had [Chris] Solinsky and [Matt] Tegenkamp and [Simon] Bairu and Tim Nelson start off the guys side and I've kind of carried on what I've learned from those guys and kept it intact on the team right now. Shalane has kind of molded the women's side and when you have Shalane Flanagan molding the women's side you're pretty well off. I think we've got great leadership on the team, a really good vibe, everyone meshes really well, and we treat it like a business. We have fun but when it comes down to it it's work. We train really hard and are serious about it. We try to show up at big meets like this and everyone's got their standards set really high. I think that goes back to the elders, the veterans that we had on the team to start off."
Favorites Advance In Wet Men's 1500M
Accustomed to wet conditions, the Oregon Duck contingent here once again performed great in inclement weather. With eight current or former Ducks lining up for the semis on home turf, six would run fast enough to advance to Sunday's 1500m final.
Though the Duck alums did well, the first heat would go to newly minted Brooks Beast (and former Washington Husky) Izaic Yorks. Looking around at his competitors along the backstretch with 600m to go, Yorks was waiting for someone to take the lead. When no one did, he grabbed the pole and never let it go.
Running his final lap in 53.39 (strong considering the wind and rain), Yorks finished in 3:47.67 ahead of Craig Engels (3:47.76), Colby Alexander (3:47.77), Kyle Merber (3:48.30) and Daniel Winn (3:48.31).
"I liked getting out there and closing that last lap real hard, letting everyone know I'm not just a leader from the gun. I can play both games," Yorks said. Looking back at the pelting rain soaking the surroundings he joked with the press "This is like a sunny day in Seattle!"
Similar to Yorks, Ben Blankenship was the aggressor in the second section. However, Blankenship would lead from 700 meters onward, keeping his foot on the accelerator. He'd cross the stripe in 3:44.24, fastest among all competitors.
Behind Blankenship, Matthew Centrowitz (3:44.29), Robby Andrews (3:44.36), and Leo Manzano (3:44.57) formed an experienced trio rounding out the top four. Eric Avila snagged the final automatic qualifier mark in 3:44.68 and was followed closely by two-time Olympian Andrew Wheating (3:44.57); Jordan McNamara (3:45.01); and Johnny Gregorek (3:45.59). McNamara was originally disqualified, but was reinstated and will compete in Sunday's final.
"Wet again, but I knew each round was just going to get more and more competitive. Our heat had a lot of previous Olympians and obviously a lot of fast people so you have to take it seriously," said Centrowitz. "It's pretty tough to lead in the rain and wind so I expected that tactical race."
Only five athletes hold the Olympic Games qualifying standard of 3:36.20 in advance of Sunday's final: Robby Andrews, Ben Blankenship, Matthew Centrowitz, Leo Manzano and Kyle Merber. The other eight men in the 13-man final will have to achieve the standard on Sunday in order to be assured of Olympic team selection.
Women's 1500M Shaping Up To Be Speed Session
All of the favorites entering the women's 1500m semi-finals advanced with automatic qualifying spots, led by heat winners Jenny Simpson (4:10.09) and Brenda Martinez (4:11.05). Simpson struck at 1100 meters to get her legs moving, while Martinez made her winning move with 200 to go. Both surges separated the contenders from pretenders.
"I'm so happy I'm in the final. It doesn't matter how many times you've done it or how confident you are, it's a relief to be through," said Simpson, the 2011 world 1500m champion and the winner of two straight 1500m national championships. "As you whittle it down there's a higher concentration of really good people."
If Sunday's final plays out similarly to today's tactical race, Martinez says she'll be licking her chops. She had plenty of gears left to sprint at the end.
"I was just going to try to wind up and feel good the last lap. I'm good with a 62 closing," she said. "If I had to use them I knew they'd be there."
Shannon Rowbury and Alexa Efraimson looked very strong finishing second and third in heat one in 4:10.24 and 4:10.49, respectively. Morgan Uceny and Mary Cain similarly appeared composed coming down the homestretch. Though they placed third (4:11.64) and fourth (4:12.39) in heat two, the pair were well within their control.
Neither high school star Christina Aragon nor Kate Murphy advanced. They both placed ninth in their respective heats with times of 4:12.71 and 4:14:52.
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Tomorrow afternoon, the men's 5000m final will be run at 5:20 p.m. local time. On Sunday, the middle and long distance competition closes with the men's and women's 1500m final, as well as the women's 5000m final.
PHOTO: (left to right) Mason Ferlic, Hillary Bor, Donn Cabral, Andy Bayer, Stanley Kebenei and Evan Jager take the bell at the 2016 USA Olympic Trials steeplechase final in Eugene, Ore. (Photo by Chris Lotsbom for Race Results Weekly)