My dad, the late Bruce K. Smith, was a Math teacher at Madison East High School (WI), but everybody knew him as an amateur photographer. He would never shy away from telling anybody who would listen about his new camera, new lens, and all the great features. This meant, in an age where people actually printed out pictures, we had a new photo album for practically every other month of my teenage years. Some people my age do not have any pictures of themselves playing sports. I have hundreds.
Three years after my dad died, I got my first teaching job at Antioch Community High School. For the first time in my life, I was making good money, living on my own, and had some real disposable income. That first Christmas I treated myself to the most expensive item I had ever bought: a Nikon D50 Digital SLR camera. Plus the sports lens, camera case and all that jazz. Spent over $1000 total, and it was worth every penny. This was in December of 2005, right when Facebook was just allowing photo albums (at 60 pictures per album). If you were my Facebook friend back then, odds are the first pictures of you on Facebook were taken by me.
Having a high quality camera allowed me to take great pictures of some of my favorite athletes at elite events. Below is a sampling of some of the best pictures I have taken.
Having grown up in Wisconsin my whole life, the first time I went to the Illinois State Track & Field Championships was my first year as Antioch’s head coach, 2006. Our only qualifier was Brad Fortney, a junior who made it in the Shot Put and Discus. I spent all of Friday following Brad around taking pictures. He had an off day and did not make finals, which was disappointing but allowed time on Saturday to just relax and enjoy the meet. The first final of the day was the 4x800m Relay.
Many of you reading this article watched the 2006 IHSA Class AA 4x800m Relay finals. I doubt any of you have forgotten it. Being a newcomer to the state, I did not know who anybody was in Illinois (except York, everybody knows York). I knew Illinois was overall a better and deeper state than Wisconsin, but I was not prepared at all for what to expect in the 4x800m Relay. The Wisconsin state record in the 4x800m Relay at that time was 7:47.27, set by four of my friends from Verona High School in 1999. That time would have barely gotten then ninth place in the race I was about to watch.
The race was a battle the whole way. Other than York, the only team I knew was Libertyville, who had dominated our conference (North Suburban Conference) in the 4x800m Relay all year. Coming into the anchor leg, there were five teams with a chance to win. I snapped this shot of the anchors getting ready.
Little did I know I had just taken my first picture of a future Illinois legend. On the backstretch of the first lap, all five top teams were still in contention. Being slightly ignorant on the ways of Illinois, I just assumed York would win.
What happened next was awesome. I was standing right by the York section, who also assumed their team would win. They were jumping around and screaming and cheering and going crazy. The stadium was shaking. I’ll let the pictures tell the rest of the story.
Even the York crowd wowed. I asked them who that was. One of their shirtless, body-painted fans said with a slight twinge of disgust in his voice, “Evan Jager.” He had split 1:51 to bring Algonquin Jacobs the State title in a meet-record time of 7:40.02. Ninth place was 7:47.31. I had never seen anything like it.
- Algonquin Jacobs, 7:40.02
- York, 7:41.81
- Glenbard South, 7:42.97
- East St. Louis, 7:43.77
- Quincy, 7:45.15
- Downers Grove North, 7:46.38
- Libertyville, 7:46.57
- Benet Academy, 7:47.16
- St. Charles North, 7:47.31
A few hours later, after getting an education about how great Cakohia was (they scored 94.33 points, more than doubling the runner-up team), Evan Jager was back on the track in the 1600m Run. Once again, he made the race exciting, toying with the field for a while before pulling away to a three-second victory in 4:11.22.
A small obsession was born. State meets have a way of doing that, and so do exceptional athletes. The best high school distance runner I had seen up to that point was Gabe Jennings, who was a student of my dad’s at Madison East. He won nine State titles in Wisconsin and still holds the State meet record in the 1600m Run at 4:04.97. Gabe went onto win three NCAA titles for Stanford, set an indoor World Record in the Distance Medley Relay, and win the 2000 US Olympic Trials in the 1500m Run to make the Olympic team. Perhaps in Evan Jager I had just seen another precocious, long-haired athlete who would lead US distance running.
In the fall of 2006, I started coaching Cross Country at Antioch. They host an invite every year, the Pat Harland Invitational, at a 3-mile course in Silver Lake, Wisconsin at Fox River Park. In six years of coaching high school Cross Country, I never saw a harder course. Among the rolling hills are three downhills that claim victims every year. The course seems unnecessarily hard, especially for Illinois athletes used to pancake-flat terrains.
Evan Jager won the Pat Harland Invitational as a sophomore in 2004 and set the course record as a junior in 2005. Everybody was expecting him to break his own course record as a senior in 2006. His arrival at the meet was reminiscent of the first time I saw Gabe Jennings and Chris Solinsky run in high school (both were hounded for autographs).
Nobody had plans to beat Jager. Many were excited to just be in the race with him. For the first 100 meters, a bunch of athletes from Grant sprinted out with him and yelled at their parents to take a picture. They wanted to prove that even for a moment they were beating the great Evan Jager.
After a few seconds, the athletes from Grant got tired and fell back. Half a mile into the race, Evan Jager was all alone.
Everybody who came out was treated to a show. Jager ran 15:03, an unbelievable time on such a difficult course. Nobody else in the race broke 16:00. Shoot, nobody else in the race even broke 16:30. There was something zen about the way he ran. Other than the Grant kids at the beginning, he had no competition at all. He looked smooth, in control, like a deer.
Just over a month later, Jager won the IHSA Class AA State Cross Country Championships in a time of 14:07, beating a great field of Kevin Havel (14:12), Chris Derrick (14:22), Dan Chenoweth (14:24) and Dan Grange (14:24). He was considered the favorite to win the prestigious Foot Locker Cross Country Championships (there were no Nike Cross Nationals back then).
Unfortunately, when you catch an athlete’s greatest moments, you sometimes catch them at their lowest moments. At the 2006 Foot Locker Midwest Regional Championships at UW-Parkside, Jager charged to the front and led the race through the mile (4:50) and 2-mile (9:40).
After the race, Jager said he felt pressure to lead since he was the favorite. He was wearing bib number 1, meaning he was the top returning athlete. Nobody had really considered the possibility that he would not finish in the top 10. But about 2.5 miles into the race, Jager started to slip back in the pack. Coming out of the woods with about 600 meters to go, he was still in tenth place, but was clearly out of gas. The familiar stride was still there, but rather than effortlessly moving past people, he was losing ground with every step. He faded to 15th, missing a chance to run at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships. Dan Chenoweth, whom Jager had beaten by 17 seconds a few weeks earlier at the IHSA State Championships, earned the 10th and final spot. Jager, who had finished 9th at Foot Locker as a junior, would not even be able to compete as a senior, an unthinkable end to a great prep XC career.
Despite his hiccup at the Foot Locker Midwest Regional, the hype going into Jager’s senior Track & Field season was huge. He entered the State Championships hoping to be win both the 3200m and 1600m. But Illinois was stacked with great distance talent, and the prelims make doubling notoriously difficult. Jager pulled away from a tough 3200m Run field that saw three athletes run under 9:00.
Even without a rolling schedule, doubling from the 3200m Run back to the 1600m Run is difficult. Still, five of the last eight years in AA had seen a 3200m/1600m double winner (Don Sage in 1999 and 2000, Stephen Pifer in 2003, Matt Withrow in 2004, Sean McNamara in 2005). Jager hung tough, but was eventually overcome by the fantastic last lap of Loyola Academy’s Tom Robbins (4:10.46).
Jager kicked for second in 4:12.35. That was the last picture I ever took of him, one year after the first picture I ever took. Jager’s final two seasons of high school happened to coincide with the period of my life when I was obsessed with taking pictures. I only ever saw him run live at four meets, plus dozens of others on TV or online.
If you have read this far down in the article, you probably know the rest of the Evan Jager story. He went to the University of Wisconsin, where he red-shirted Cross Country and Indoor Track & Field, finally making an appearance for the Badgers during the outdoor season. After placing 8th in the 1500m at the NCAA Championships, Jager surprised everybody by turning pro. His college coach, Jerry Schumacker, left the Badgers as well to help Jager train with a Nike-based group in Portland, OR.
Jager surprised everybody again a year later, justifying his decision to turn pro by placing third in the US Championships in the 5000m Run. Former Badgers Matt Tegenkamp and Chris Solinksy also qualified. Those three represented the USA at the 2009 IAAF World Championships in Berlin. Then he got hurt and missed most of the 2010 and 2011 seasons. Had he already peaked?
At the beginning of the 2012 season, the long-legged Jager decided to try the 3000m Steeplechase. He was, of course, a natural at the event, running 8:26.14 in his first race. A few months later, Jager dominated the US Olympic Trials in 8:17.40. He was now an Olympian, and has not lost a US Championship race since, winning in 2013, 2014, 2015 and just this week in 2016.
Jager proved to be a contender on the world stage in 2012, setting the American record at 8:06.81, and placing sixth in the Olympic final. He then placed fifth at the 2013 IAAF World Championships and sixth at the 2015 IAAF World Championships in the Steeplechase. Jager also lowered his own American record by running a staggering 8:00.45 despite falling over the final barrier. The winner, whom he was beating by ten yards before tripping, ran 7:58.83.
Can Jager get a medal at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games? He has already placed in the top six at three different global championships. He will have one of the fastest personal records in the field. He will have plenty of experience. And he will have the support of thousands of fellow runners, coaches and fans who were inspired watching him run in high school, college and professionally. Count me as one of them.
Good luck, Evan.
Addendum – 8/17/16
Evan Jager won the Silver Medal in the 3000m Steeplechase at the 2016 Olympics earlier this morning. He will be joined on the medal stand by two of the greatest steeplechasers in world history. The winner of the race, Conseslus Kipruto, won the Silver Medal in the 3000m Steeplechase at both the 2013 and 2015 World Championships. The winner of both of those races, Ezekiel Kemboi, finished as the Bronze Medal winner today behind Kipruto and Jager. Kemboi won the Gold Medal in the 3000m Steeplechase at Olympics in 2004 and 2012, and has won medals at the last seven World Championships (Silver in 03, 05, 07; Gold in 09, 11, 13, 15).
Jager’s time in the final of 8:04.28 is the second-fastest in Olympic history behind, of course, Kipruto’s winning time of 8:03.28. As I write this, Lake Park’s Zach Ziemek is competing in the first day of the Decathlon. Illinois athletes have represented our state and our country well during these Olympic Games.
You can follow Lake Forest Track & Field on Twitter at @LFHStrack.