How Pascal Dobert turned Evan Jager into America's top steeplechase runner
- Evan Jager didn't start running the steeplechase until he turned professional, but he has his coach, Pascal Dobert, to thank for helping him recognize his talent.
Even though his competitive days on the track are long gone, Pascal Dobert still looks like he could compete with the best of them today. The 41-year-old former steeplechase runner, who continues to stay in shape with occasional runs and lifting sessions, now works as the right-hand man for renowned track and field coach Jerry Schumacher as the assistant coach of the Nike Bowerman Track Club—a track and field training group based in Portland, Ore. that is sending 10 Olympians (seven Americans, two Canadians and one Kenyan) to the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Schumacher elects to stay out of the media spotlight and does no interviews with the press. Dobert is a little more open, yet an internet search of his name brings up just one race on Youtube, a Runner’s World article on strength training and a Vimeo link for a core workout. Yet, Dobert and BTC claim responsibility for one of America’s rapidly rising steeplechase talents—Evan Jager.
“We’re about performance and getting the athletes better and prepared for major championships races,” Dobert says. “Everything else is secondary to that. As cliche as it sounds, we’re blue collar, bust our ass, train hard and do what we need to race well in big races. We don’t look for attention and it’s obvious when people seek it. The sport isn’t about that. It’s about competition.”
Dobert and Schumacher first met at the University of Wisconsin when Dobert was a senior in high school on his recruiting trip, and they overlapped as Badgers teammates for a year. After graduating in 1997, Dobert turned pro and went on to win three U.S. championships and the 2000 U.S. Olympic Trials. (He finished sixth in his heat of the Sydney Olympics.)
When he hung up his spikes, Dobert became an assistant under Schumacher at Wisconsin for several years before he took a sports marketing job at the Nike campus in Beaverton, Ore. Once Schumacher got the call to start a professional training group in Portland, Dobert left the cubicle life behind to rejoin his friend.
Dobert suffered a number of injuries in his post-collegiate years, and used his time while recovering at the St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis to learn about the human body and how get stronger. So when he joined BTC, Dobert was in charge of writing and overseeing the team’s strength, core and supplemental training regiment three times a week. Many training groups tend to go just twice a week, but results have shown that the extra day is working for the Bowerman track club. That was his sole focus until he and Schumacher explored the option of having a 23-year-old Evan Jager become a steeplechaser.
The steeplechase—a 3,000-meter race featuring four large hurdles, one of which wasn’t foreign to Jager; his high school coach at Harry D. Jacobs High School in Algonquin, Ill. proposed that Jager run the event in college, but the transition into the NCAA and his life as a professional did not align with the plan early on.
After a year of running at Wisconsin under Schumacher and Dobert, Jager decided to turn professional, following Schumacher to Portland to train as part of his new training group. But life as a pro didn’t get off to a great start—he suffered a stress fracture in the navicular bone his right foot before undergoing surgery in 2010, and had a rocky year of running in ’11.
“I was kind of looking for something different and a bit of a change,” Jager says. “It didn’t take much convincing but the plan if I could get through 2011 and start up training after surgery, I was all for it.”
In one of his first steeplechase workouts, Jager felt pretty comfortable, so he continued meeting at least twice a week with Dobert to go over the basics of stretching, standing drills, hurdling and water jumping. Jager tried to sometimes watch Dobert’s races on the internet.
“I remember [Schumacher] and I turning to each other and saying, ‘Wow. He’s got it.’ as far as the hurdling goes,” Dobert says. “There’s still the element of being in a race with many other elements such as the water barriers, elbowing and other tactics. He nailed those too.”
Jager won his steeplechase debut at the Mt. SAC Relays in Walnut, Calif., and one month later, Jager qualified for the Olympic trials with an 8:20.90 at the Oxy High Performance Meet in Eagle Rock, California. But even then, Jager still wasn’t convinced that steeplechase was the event for him.
“Before the trials, Jerry and Pascal told me that I was ready to make the Olympic team and make the trials,” Jager says. “I was confident but didn’t totally believe them until I crossed the finish line. The win at the trials was the stamp of approval.”
Since then, Jager has developed into the greatest American steeplechase runner. In the weeks between the 2012 trials and the London Olympics, Jager set his first American record of 8:06.81 at the Monaco Diamond League. The race solidified that he could contend with the best in the world—and two weeks later, he did, leading at the London Olympics for a few laps before finishing sixth overall.
With fast times and flowing golden locks of hair (that he’s been asked to show off by international media), Jager continued to climb in the world rankings to clip at the heels of the Kenyans. He got help along the way as he was joined by steeplechase-runners Daniel Huling and Andy Bayer.
Jager’s greatest surge of improvement came at the 2015 Paris Diamond League meet. Jager took the lead over Kenya’s Jairus Birech with one lap remaining and pulled away to about a 10-meter lead. He cleared the final water barrier but clipped the hurdle with less than 100 meters remaining and fell to the ground. Birech passed him and set a meet record of 7:58.83, while Jager picked himself up to lower his American record to 8:00.45 but just fell short of breaking eight minutes—something no non-African has ever accomplished.
“The biggest thing we realized was that I had such a great race but this small mishap destroyed my chances of breaking eight minutes, which is a major goal of mine.”
At the world championships later that summer, Jager wanted nothing more than to follow up his fall with a medal, but he finished in a disappointing sixth. Jager admits that he was not in the mood to talk to anyone after that performance, and most condolences for his performance went unheard. He’s come to terms with the mistakes that were caused by his own added pressure last summer.
“I took that fall and the new level of fitness that I was at and made it a point to medal in Beijing,” Jager says. “Obviously I wanted to medal but Paris made me think that I had to medal. The way Pascal put it was that I wanted to prove everyone wrong and show everyone I could medal. I used Paris as motivation in a negative way.”
Dobert sat down with Jager in the fall to look back on the past year as they began the fall preparations for the Olympic year, hoping to help him move past.
“You want to do well at a world championship stage because that’s the biggest moment and you shouldn’t let what happened in the past simplify things and it did that,” Dobert says. “It was a big moment because he ran fast while falling. Distance running is pretty hard but it’s also really simple. When you let expectations and wanting to make up for things that could’ve happened, it adds a burden and increased weight.”
Luckily, with the Olympics approaching, Jager is back in a good state of mind, according to Dobert, with a lot saved for Rio. Now the tough part for Dobert and Schumacher is creating a race plan that best suits Jager’s closing speed and endurance over a longer race, helping him take down the Kenyans who have dominated this event recently. Kemboi is the athlete that they’ve had their eyes on—the Kenyan has won two Olympic gold medals and four world championship titles, and even his compatriots haven’t been able to drop him in a fast-paced race, settling for silver and bronze.
“You can have a massive engine but you’re not going to place as high as you should or even medal if you’re not a bullet at the end of the race,” Dobert says. “We’re preparing Evan and everyone for any type of race over the last two years. He’ll be ready.”