The Sports Examiner: Life lessons from the USATF Steeplechase finals

BYU's Kenneth Rooks closes in on his improbable Steeple win at the USATF National Championships (Photo: BYU Track & Field/Cross Country)

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All the hype coming into the USATF National Championships in Eugene was around the sprints and hurdles and if Ryan Crouser set another world record in the shot. But if the running, jumping and throwing in Eugene taught any lasting lessons, it had to be from the men’s and women’s 3,000 m Steeplechase finals.

The men’s race was wide open, with stars Evan Jager and Hillary Bor both absent, and the early pace was slow, creating a bunched field. On the inside was NCAA Steeple champ Kenneth Rooks of BYU, 23, who was running up on ex-UTEP star and three-time NCAA winner Anthony Rotich, and not wanting to push him over the backstraight barrier, took a somersault over the barrier himself, fell and ended up sprawled on the ground as the pack raced away.

That was at about the 750 m mark and he dropped from sixth to 14th, more than two seconds behind everyone else and more than four seconds back of leader Dan Michalski of the Air Force. Rooks didn’t panic.

He said afterwards he remembered U.S. great – and 1976-80-84-88 U.S. Olympian – Henry Marsh, also a BYU legend, who was notorious for running from the back, but ending up in front. But Rooks was still 14th. But he knew what to do:

● 800 m: 14th in 2:18.54 (70.97 lap)
● 1,200 m: 14th in 3:25.60 (67.06)
● 1,600 m: 12th in 4:32.75 (67.16)
● 2,000 m: 9th in 5:39.90 (67.16)
● 2,400 m: 6th in 6:45.67 (65.77)
● 2,800 m: 3rd in 7:47.21 (61.55)

He finished his last 400 in 60.15 and his last 800 m in 2:04.29, moving from seventh to first in a lifetime best of 8:16.78, improving on his Mt. SAC Relays win of 8:17.62.

His key move from 12th to ninth to regain contact with the leaders came between 1,600 and 2,000 m as he ran his third straight lap in just over 67 seconds. No panic. Concentration. Confidence. Rooks offered a six-minute master class demonstrating legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden’s maxim: “Things turn out best for those who make the best of how things turn out.”

This is not the first time such a thing has happened, of course. Long-time observers remember Finland’s Lasse Viren taking a fall in the Olympic 10,000 m final in Munich in 1972, getting up and not only winning, but setting a world record of 27:38.35. That was the start of the Viren legend, winning the Olympic 5-10 double in 1972 and 1976.

Rooks now ranks 18th on the world list for 2023 and won’t be favored to even make the final at the Worlds in Budapest. But we know he won’t ever give up, and he won’t panic.

The women’s Steeple was already a teaching platform, run just before the men. Former World Champion Emma Coburn had won eight straight U.S. titles from 2014-22, and was expected to battle ex-BYU star Courtney Wayment, the 2022 NCAA winner and USATF runner-up.

And Coburn had control of the race, taking the lead with 700 m left. And she was leading with 600 m left, 500 m left, at the bell, and with 300 m to go, with Wayment a half-second back.

But working her way up from sixth with 2 1/2 laps left was Krissy Gear, a 1,500 m NCAA All-American for Arkansas in 2022, now running the Steeple as a pro for the HOKA Northern Arizona (NAZ) Elite Team. Like Rooks, she had a plan and that was to position herself for a closing kick, playing to her speed and strength.

She was fourth with two laps left and had moved up to third at the bell. She ran the fastest 100 m in the field on the final backstraight and caught Coburn and Wayment with 200 m to go and then zoomed by Coburn on the home straight to shave a staggering 11.74 seconds off her lifetime best of 9:23.55, and win in 9:12.81. Coburn was second at 9:13.60 and Wayment third in 9:14.63.

Preparation met opportunity, or as Wooden also said, over and over, “Failing to prepare is preparing to fail.” Gear was ready.

On this site, there is exhaustive coverage of winners and losers, plotters and politicians and making sense of strategies and subterfuges that make international sport both compelling and maddening.

What Rooks and Gear were teaching in Eugene are life lessons that are timeless, priceless and require only belief and effort. That’s why sport is so great.

This was underlined by the final event of the meet, the men’s 110 m hurdles final. World Champion Grant Holloway had an automatic entry in the 2023 Worlds and won his semi, so he pulled out of the final. That left defending champion Daniel Roberts being challenged by insurgent newcomer Cordell Tinch, a star athlete at Kansas in 2019 who had lost his way.

He won the Big 12 title in the 110 m hurdles as a frosh, but left when the pandemic hit in 2020. He enrolled at Coffeyville Community College in Kansas in the fall, but had left the sport and went home to Green Bay, Wisconsin and was working for U.S. Cellular in sales when some of his buddies from Coffeyville suggested giving Pittsburg State – a Division II school nicknamed the Gorillas – a try.

Tinch, encouraged by his family, was an immediate sensation despite three years off. He shocked the track & field world with a wind-aided 12.87 win at the NCAA Division II meet and then a world-leading 12.96 in Arkansas on 23 June.

In Eugene, he was stride-for-stride with Roberts throughout the last half of the final, closing hard to just miss winning, 13.05 to 13.08 (wind: -0.2 m/s). He’s on his way to Budapest and has turned professional in something he has always loved. The key? He told Jeff Hollobaugh of Track & Field News:

“None of this that I have right now, none of this is possible without my mother. She’s truly the one thing on this planet that keeps me grounded and keeps everything in perspective. She’s my biggest fan, my biggest critic, and I will always love that woman for that. I truly wouldn’t be back in school if it weren’t for me and her talking about it.”

If sports – as a life experience – teaches us anything, it is the late North Carolina State basketball coach Jim Valvano’s immortal line from the March 1993 ESPY Awards: “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”

There were better performances in Eugene, higher up on the world list for 2023, than what Rooks, Gear and Tinch ran. But their stories will resonate long after the times are forgotten, for all the right reasons.

~ Rich Perelman

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