If you’ve checked Twitter by now, you know Evan Jager became the first American to medal in the steeplechase since the formation of the World Championships in 1983.
Despite that accomplishment, Jager walked away “disappointed.”
“I had high hopes of winning gold,” Jager said after the race.
Given the fact Jager came into the race as the odds-on favorite to win, let’s take a deeper dive at his tactics, particularly compared to his silver medal performance in Rio, to see why gold slipped just out of his grasp this time around.
The first kilometer today went out in an extremely pedestrian pace with Ethiopia’s Tafese Seboka leading in 2:51.81. In comparison, the first 1K at last summer’s Olympics were run over 10 seconds faster in 2:41.61.
From there, Jager utilized similar tactics, taking the lead four laps into the race and ratcheting down the pace. In Rio, he ran a second kilometer in about 2:44. In London, it was just a tick faster – 2:43.
In both instances, Jager had narrowed his competition down to two other men at the bell, yet the situations felt different.
When Conseslus Kipruto and Ezekiel Kemboi passed Jager at the bell in 2016, Jager had more of a spring in his step and was able to recover and eventually sprint past Kemboi on the final straight to earn the silver medal.
Things felt different in 2017. Still leading with 300 meters to go, you could see Jager’s discomfort as he tried holding on to his pace. When Kipruto (déjà vu), along with Morroco’s Soufiane Elbakkali, passed with 250 to go, Jager struggled to hang on and had to fight just to hold on to his bronze medal position.
So, from Jager’s perspective, what can we take away from tonight’s race in London?
Jager employed a nearly identical strategy but finished in a lower place. Explanations for that? Perhaps the competition, notably the emergence of Elbakkali as a world class steepler, got better. And then there’s just sheer luck that can often dictate whether an athlete has a good or bad day.
Here’s the bottom line: Jager appears to have found the strategy that best suits in him in both championship and invitational settings – push the pace from mid-race to take the sting out of the East Africans’ kicks. Sometimes (like in Rio or the Monaco Diamond League earlier this year), the plan works perfectly. In other cases, like today, things don’t go well.
That’s the random luck that makes our sport both beautiful and crappy at the same time.