Making a Name: The Michael Jordan of Track has arrived
It’s tough to be a c-team high school basketball player when your name is Michael Jordan. The jokes come easy to jeering fans and unsympathetic teammates. It is a name that casts a long shadow.
Michael Jordan—the professional steeplechaser from Indiana—knows from experience. The name has been a double-edged sword, making it easy for newspaper editors in his home state to come up with fun headlines when he started winning races on the track.
On June 23, Jordan found himself at an Italian restaurant in Sacramento sitting at a table with what might be considered the steeplechase version of Scotty Pippen and Dennis Rodman: Stanley Kebeni and Hillary Bor. Two of the three steeplechasers at that table would punch their ticket to the world championships the next day, but in that moment they were huddled around a phone screen, watching their training partner, Paul Chelimo, toe the line in the 5K. Granted, if there’s an analogy to be made between the American Distance Project and the 90’s Bulls, Chelimo probably fills the role of His Airness.
The live stream of the meet happening a few miles away showed a lone figure about 100 meters in front of the rest of the competitors. Their American Distance Project teammate was on his way to soloing a 13:08. The shock and awe that struck the rest of the American track world was lost on them, since they knew Chelimo had been planning on running this race, in this way, for months.
Jordan is surrounded by some of the finest distance athletes in the U.S. as he trains each day with Olympians and Olympic medalists, lives at altitude in Colorado Springs, runs monstrous workouts in the morning and drinks Kenyan tea in the afternoon.
But making the name Michael Jordan mean something in the track and field world is the result of a long road, one that was traversed using sheer will. He came to the sport late, fighting through a Division II collegiate career with mountain range-worth of highs and lows and a rocky transition to post-collegiate racing. Now, he finds himself at the heart of a training group reshaping the landscape of American distance running.
Along the way, he’s learned a lot about the value of diversity and what it really means. He’s translated his humble beginnings into the resilience necessary to chase this dream.
Jordan started running specifically because he had so much to prove on the basketball court. It didn’t come easy. He ran the 100 and 300 hurdles in the track season, but when he tried running a mile time trial, he threw up after a 5:57.
Michael’s brother, Craig, started running first. When their high school in Gary had only four guys come out for cross-country, talked him into running cross-country so that the team would five guys and be able compete as a team. Things changed when his parents separated and he transferred from Gary to a much larger and more diverse Pike High School in Indianapolis. He was still running to get fit for basketball, but at a regional race, he clocked a sub-16 5k.
His coach told him he might have a shot at running in college. At that point, Jordan says, he didn’t even know there was an NCAA system for cross-country and track. But he was in.
“I was so oblivious to the running world,” Jordan said.
In his first track season, he ran a 4:26 1600, but got sick and tanked at the regional meet. It was Jordan’s first disappointing day on the track. He cried. But that emotion lit a fire.
“I realized how bad I actually wanted to be good,” he said.
It was Jordan’s first opportunity to bounce back from a season that ended in disappointment. It wouldn’t be his last.
As a senior, he’d shown enough ability to get him offers at Butler, where his brother was already running. Jordan didn’t want to follow his brother to Butler. New Mexico and Southern Indiana also came calling but New Mexico wasn’t offering enough money, so he committed to Southern Indiana to work under long-tenured coach Mike Hillyard. Jordan had no sense of the difference between Division I and Division II at the time. Southern Indiana offered the most money and he wanted to be close to home.
After a rough first semester and a poor showing in indoor, Hillyard pushed Jordan to take track seriously. A few months of focus and decent training had him run 9:00 in the steeplechase. Even for a Division I freshman, 9:00 is no joke.
That race qualified Jordan for nationals, but it was an especially difficult moment to be chasing a championship in the steeplechase in Division II. Adams State’s Reuben Mwei was fresh off running 8:34 in the steeple. Jordan was nervous about racing against a Kenyan, something he laughs about now that he spends most of his time running alongside Kenyan-born athletes. He made the final, but would finish dead last.
“It was really embarrassing and humbling. Again,” Jordan said.
And yet, that bad race would light another fire. Just a few weeks later, at the U.S. Junior Championships, Jordan placed fourth and barely missed a world team. Suddenly, in about three years of competitive running, Jordan was running amongst the fastest guys in his age group in the country.
But success on the track masked a more complicated reality for Jordan at Southern Indiana. After attending a predominantly black high school in Gary, and a diverse high school in Indianapolis, he found himself isolated at a mostly white university. When one of his teammates called him the n-word, he considered transferring schools.
“It was a huge environment change for me,” Jordan said. “I didn’t really have any teammates to guide me.”
He was on academic probation, outside the top seven in cross-country and failed to get back to nationals in the steeple. It was a season’s worth of frustrating races and a deep hole out of which to climb. But quitting wasn’t an option.
“I couldn’t quit because I needed the money to finish school.” Jordan said.
“This is the last time I’m going to sit you down, Michael,” he recalls Hillyard saying. Hillyard implored Jordan to focus on running, and try to make something of his ability.
That summer, he went home to Indianapolis. He trained with his brother as well as a group of British athletes running for Butler, including world-class steeplechaser Rob Mullett. The seasoned and considerably older Brits taught Jordan how to train and tried to catch him up on understanding the lore of the sport plus the detailed aspects of racing.
It paid off. He started working out with teammate and 10K stud Dustin Emerick. They would bring home seventh place for Southern Indiana and Jordan found an All-American medal around his neck.
That spring, he ran an early 8:55 steeple, putting him in a position to make a serious campaign toward a national title.
Jordan had arrived.
But on the plane ride home from the Mount SAC Invite, he experienced severe pain in his abdomen. A few hours later, back in Indiana, he was in the hospital undergoing an emergency appendectomy.
Nationals was three weeks away and there was no chance for a medical redshirt. He had a decision to make, two weeks out from nationals: Fight through pain and mediocre preparation to try to race or lose a year of eligibility at the peak of his career at Southern Indiana.
He took a few days off before easing back into running. Then he jumped in a steeple race at a last-chance meet and ran 8:58. He decided to race.
The 2012 D-II steeplechase championship was stacked. Western State had Ryan Haebe, who had run 8:36 that year, and David Goodman was the defending champion. (Jordan and Goodman are friends, having raced each other many times at high school meets in Indiana.) Augustana’s Norwegian stud Tom Karbo was in the race. Alaska Anchorage’s Micah Chelimo may not have won the steeple but was in the race just a day before he would go on to win the 5,000 meters.
Add in Tabor Stevens, who was at the beginning of a career that would see him shatter the Division II steeple record a couple of years later. Jordan faced a daunting task. The national meet was held in Pueblo, Colorado, at above 5,000 ft. This was a massive advantage for the Adams State and Western State athletes training even higher.
Jordan managed a painful 6th place, just three weeks after the appendectomy. He resolved to try to win a national title the next year.
After running top-5 in the 5,000m and 3,000m indoors, and beating Tabor Stevens in the 3k, a national championship was a legitimate possibility. But it wasn’t meant to be. He would finish third in another brutal Steeplechase at Division II’s in 2013, an effort that might have been good for a win in a different year,
He had qualified for USA’s, but the length of the season caught up with him. During the prelim in Des Moines, Iowa, he was fading, again, to dead last in his final race of the season.
He found himself out of eligibility, with a year’s worth of school left to complete a degree. It was a tenuous moment. His stock as an athlete was as high as it had ever been, but barely enough to consider a post-collegiate career.
But he was committed to finishing his degree.
“My family would be so disappointed if I didn’t,” Jordan said, adding that his father didn’t graduate from college and his mother had only an associate’s in nursing,
In 2014, track slipped to the back burner as Jordan tried to balance working 30 hours per week and finishing school. He even had to briefly leave school to change degrees.
Better Call Gags
This is the point where many call it quits on the track. A year separated from a college program, unsponsored, working full time, and PR’s rapidly aging beyond their usability for meet entries would all stand on their own as perfectly reasonable reasons for giving up the dream.
But, instead of giving it up, Jordan called Frank Gagliano. After watching Don Cabral go under 8:20 as a collegiate in 2012, he wanted to be in the same place, running the same workouts.
“Now I know coach Gags is a big deal in track and field in the U.S. I had no idea at that point. He’d probably be mad at me for that,” Jordan laughs. “I didn’t know who he was. I just asked to be on his team because I knew Don Cabral was there.
Jordan’s bold move paid off. Excited by Jordan’s marks despite limited Gagliano offered Jordan a spot to train with the New York New Jersey Track Club and in September of 2015 he was packed up and moving to the east coast.
He found himself surrounded by athletes he was accustomed to watching on TV- Kyle Merber, Johnny Gregorek, Robby Andrews, as well as Cabral.
“I was a little overwhelmed because I was kind of a fan boy at this point,” Jordan said.
He quickly started to realize that there was a yawning gap between his workload at Southern Indiana and the intensity of the top D-I programs his teammates had come through. Long tempo work, weight lifting, and core was all new to him. Jordan had only broken two minutes in the 800 twice in college. Now, he found himself doing it in workouts every week. He credited Cabral and Ashley Higginson with being great mentors, teaching him how to recover and helping him transition to the life of a pro.
But the Division II chip on his shoulder remained. He was left home when the team went to Florida and Flagstaff for training camps. Occasionally, he reminded himself that he came from a blank spot on the map, that there are plenty of guys out there who might deserve the spot he had.
Amid that uncertainty, training remained consistent and at the Hoka One One Distance Classic at Oxy in 2016, it paid off. Jordan threw down a massive PR, running 8:35, which would be fast enough to qualify for the trials.
He ran two more steeples before the trials, worried that the 8:35 wouldn’t be enough to keep him on the list for Eugene. He hit 8:35 again but then struggled to an outside 9:00 race in Portland. He would squeak into the trials, but in the final laps of the prelim, Jordan found himself at the back once again of the one of the biggest races of his season.
“It was the most embarrassing race of my life,” Jordan said.
Disappointed and demoralized, he says that he felt that he had failed Gagliano. He would learn a few weeks after the Trials that, as a part of Hoka taking over the sponsorship of NYNJ, he would not be picked up on a contract. Gagliano was no longer in a position to try to help Jordan out directly and he found himself separated from the club, suddenly adrift.
He took an entire month off and struggling with questions about whether to continue to pursue track as a career.
He did take notice of who made the Olympic team in 2016, including Hillary Bor, who was coached by Scott Simmons. Jordan had met Simmons at a few Division II championship meets when Simmons was still coaching at Division II Queens University.
Gagliano told Jordan he thought Simmons would be a great fit.
After Jordan committed to move to Colorado in August of 2016, Simmons’ newly formed American Distance Project quickly gathered strength, adding Lawi Lalang, Paul Chelimo, Sam Chelanga, among others.
“I was like, ‘oh crap.’ This team is crazy,” Jordan said.
Jordan packed up again and drove straight to Colorado Springs from New Jersey. Simmons started him out slow. He ran with Shadrack Kipchirchir’s wife for the first few weeks, slowing starting to build mileage and adjust to the altitude.
His first test was club cross in Florida. Despite running about 55 miles a week and jumping in with his teammates for maybe a third of most workouts, he placed 21st.
Jordan was thrilled. “I beat some really good guys and I wasn’t training,” he said.
Through the winter, Jordan found a rhythm in Colorado Springs. He was hanging on financially by working at a running store and walking dogs while also coaching at Discovery Canyon High School in Colorado Springs.
The athletes he found himself training with were coming off strong performances at the Olympics, carrying resumes at least as impressive as the NYNJ group. But ADP, and many of the Kenyan American athletes in the WCAP program, has been faced with criticism from the U.S. distance world. Anonymous posters on LetsRun forums go after the teams for not being American enough. That discrimination frustrates Jordan. He believes that his teammates are as American as anyone he’s ever trained with.
“I was on a very white team in college. What did we do? We ate, talked, watched movies, played video games. That’s the same thing we do now. It’s the same stuff I did with my NJ-NY teammates. At NJ-NY, we’d go out to coffee shops. Here, we go to their houses and make Kenyan tea,” Jordan said.
He added that he identifies more closely with his ADP teammates than any other team he’s been a part of, that they’ve all experienced a similar kind of discrimination.
“They’re discriminated against because of what word comes before American. For me, it’s African-American, so I get discriminated against because of that. For them, its Kenyan-American,” Jordan said. “Kyle Merber’s just called, what, an American?”
In the spring, Jordan was starting to string together solid workouts. The shift from Gagliano’s aggressive, short-rep speed sessions to Simmons’ longer tempo work and high-volume workouts was paying off.
Simmons brought Jordan in and told him, “I want you to win Stanford. Be tough.”
On April 1, he toed the line in the fast heat at the Stanford Invite once again alongside his high school and college rival David Goodman, now running for Boulder Track Club. After a messy first half of the race, Goodman would throw a massive move that blew apart the field.
Jordan covered the move and steadily bridged the gap to Goodman in the last couple of laps. In the final 300 meters, Goodman and Jordan were running stride for stride at the front of the fast heat at Stanford, two embattled ex-Division II athletes trying to will themselves into the elite ranks of American steeplechase.
Jordan would float over the water barrier and power away from Goodman on the final straight, clocking 8:33. Running that fast in April gave Jordan newfound confidence.
“I was super stoked, I was like, what the heck just happened?” he said.
After running 8:30 at the Music City Invitational in Nashville, he headed into USA’s ready for redemption. His new training partners threw their support behind him completely. In a prelim that put him on the line with some of the fastest guys in the country, including Evan Jager, Jordan covered some big moves, and made 8:38 look easy.
He’d been here before: at a US championship, fit, proud and ready to make something happen. His brother, the one who had talked him into being the fifth man for their high school squad in Gary nearly a decade prior, was in the bleachers watching. In the prelim, his plan was focused on tracking Evan Jager and covering the move when he made it.
“The way we train, we’re not afraid to go out with anyone,” Jordan said.
That strategy carried him through the prelim comfortably in 8:38. Two days later, the real test came. This time, Jordan and his teammates planned to make the final a fast race.
Jordan was the first ADP guy to take a turn at the front, surging through the first 200 meters of the race. He ran alongside Brian Schrader consistently through the first few laps. His training partners Bor, Kebeni and Lagat were all nearby. A few surges to the front had Jordan gassed. Four minutes into the race, he found himself getting gapped by the front pack, but still in contention. When Schrader went down hard in front of Jordan on a barrier with 1200 meters to go, the gap grew too big to close.
After a year of steady progress and redemption, Jordan found himself again going backwards at a championship race, eventually fading to 12th.
“It was disappointing because I definitely nowhere near what I wanted to do or where my fitness was,” he said.
But the bitterness was short-lived. To have had the season he had was impressive coming off injury and under training. Chelimo came up to him after the race and said next year would be better. He believed it.
“Since USA’s, I’ve had the best work outs of my life,” Jordan said. “I’m more fit now than I was when I ran 8:30, by a lot.
“I feel like I’m still developing into a professional. Being from Gary, being from Division II, taking some time off, I’m so far behind on everything,” He said.
But he’s catching up quickly.
He remains unsponsored. He’s still working, coaching and living simply, but for him that’s nothing new and nothing unique for ADP.
“I grew up poor, so living this life is nothing new to me. A lot of distance runners come from wealthier backgrounds… for me, I’m living just like I was in Gary: poor. So for me, it’s no different,” Jordan said.
“I’m going to go all the way to 2020, with or without help,” he added. “It’s a dream to make a team. For me, it’s not about the money. A sponsorship would make it easier, in a way, but that’s not the reason why I’m doing it and it’s not the reason why any of my teammates are doing it. I think that why we’re as successful as we are.”
Jordan will race the US 7-mile championship in Iowa this weekend before trying to find a steeple race in Europe sometime in mid-August. From there, he’s hoping to jump on the cross-country team for ADP and maybe chase some fast miles and 3,000m races during indoor.
“People are really going to know my name next year,” he said.
It will be an easy name to remember.
Photo by Source Athletics, Courtesy of Michael Jordan
This is one of the many stories in our Division II Chronicles that we hope to share on CitiusMag.com. We realize there’s a lot of interesting stories. Got an interesting one to share, feel free to shoot us an email: [email protected]
Be sure to check out The Strange Magic of Division II