With relatively little fanfare, BYU athletes pulled off a distance-running double for their school this summer.
First, Kyle Perry, a BYU senior, won the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the NCAA track and field championships in Eugene, Ore.
Then two weeks later, his training partner, BYU graduate Josh McAdams, won the steeplechase at the USA national championships. This weekend, McAdams will represent the U.S. in the World Track and Field Championships in Berlin.
This is getting to be a habit. In football circles, BYU is known as Quarterback U., but in track circles it is becoming known by another nickname.
"We're certainly getting a reputation as Steeplechase U.," says BYU distance coach Ed Eyestone.
After dominating the distance events in the '80s, the Cougars' distance program is making a comeback primarily in the steeplechase, a 7 1/2-lap romp around the track over water jumps and heavy wooden barriers.
In the last dozen years, six BYU athletes have won a dozen national championships, either at the NCAA championships or the U.S. national championships:
Elizabeth Jackson, an East High grad who considered studying dance at a private school in San Francisco before devoting herself to running at 18, won the first NCAA women's steeplechase competition at the 2001 NCAA championships and set American and collegiate records. She placed ninth in the 2005 World Championships. She also won the U.S. national championship four times and was second three times before retiring.
Michaela Mannova, a Czech, won the 2002 NCAA championships and set the collegiate record.
Kassi Andersen, another local talent (Provo High), made it three in a row for BYU women by winning the 2003 NCAA steeplechase title and setting another collegiate record. She placed second twice in the U.S. championships.
Courtney (Pugmire) Meldrum, a Californian, won two U.S. championships and the U.S. junior (19-and-under) championships in the steeplechase. Unfortunately for her, she had her best years before the steeplechase was included in NCAA competition.
McAdams, a former standout prep wrestler from Ohio, won the 2006 NCAA championship, the 2007 and 2009 U.S. championships, the 2007 Pan Am Games and represented the U.S. in the 2008 Olympic Games. He will compete in the trials of the world championships on Sunday.
Perry, an Alta High grad, was converted to the steeplechase only this year and competed in the race only five times before winning the NCAA championship. His fourth-place finish in the U.S. championships left him one spot short of making the World Championships squad. His height (6-4) and speed (sub-4 minutes in the mile) bode well for the future.
"No team has come close to doing what we've done in the steeplechase," says Shane, the BYU women's distance coach. "The steeplechase has been a BYU tradition for a long time."
Both Shane and Eyestone — and, indirectly, former Weber State coach Chick Hislop — have been the impetus for BYU's prowess in the event. The Cougars demonstrated a penchant for the steeplechase as early as the '60s, but they needed refinement. When Bob Richards won the steeplechase in the 1966 NCAA championships, he actually stopped and climbed over the last barrier rather than hurdle it.
Then along came Shane, a former BYU steeplechaser who was hired as a graduate assistant coach in 1972 and 1973 and assigned to coach steeplechasers. He brought hurdle technique and strategy to the event. Among those he worked with were Gary Cramer, an Orem native who placed second in the NCAA championships in 1973, and a walk-on named Henry Marsh. All Marsh did was go on to become a four-time Olympian, 10-time U.S. champion and three times was the No. 1-ranked steeplechaser in the world.
Years later, after Shane became the women's distance coach, he converted Pugmire, Andersen, Mannova and Jackson into steeplechasers just as the NCAA was adding steeplechase to its competition. He also produced All-Americans Nan Evans, Rena Chesser and Amy Fowler in the event.
Eyestone has done the same thing for the men's program since being hired as its distance coach seven years ago, reviving a program that had slumped since its banner days of the '80s. As Eyestone was winding down his own professional running career — he was a two-time Olympic marathoner — he began preparing for a coaching career by serving as an assistant coach under Hislop, Weber State's longtime coach and widely considered the American steeplechase guru.
"Most guys don't work on their hurdle technique," says Eyestone. "They're just distance runners who survive the hurdles. But Chick broke it down and made it a distance hurdling event. He believed that if you've got a kid who is not a blue-chip distance runner and can't compete in the flat races at the national level, you make him a steeplechaser and teach him good hurdle technique. A bad hurdler loses 40 to 50 seconds with the barriers over 3,000 meters; a good hurdler loses only 20 seconds. It's the equalizer. Good open runners can become very good steeplers with work, and the very good distance runners can become great. It gives guys an opportunity to become All-Americans who might not have had that opportunity in the other races."
Besides producing two national champions in the steeplechase, Eyestone also has coached three steeplechase All-Americans — Chandler Goodwin, Rich Nelson and Matt Adams.
"Everyone (at BYU) is going to get a chance to run the steeplechase or the drills till he proves himself completely incompetent," says Eyestone. "You can tell early on if someone is not going to leave his mark in the steeplechase — they're uncoordinated or lack flexibility. The first day I saw Josh run the steeplechase drills, I told someone, 'This guy is going to be a national champion.' "
For Eyestone and Shane, the steeplechase will continue to be the great equalizer for the Cougars.
"We've had success with it and that has created interest," says Shane.
BYU has produced 24 All-American certificates, six national champions and four runners-up in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
Kyle Perry, 2009 **
Rich Nelson, 2009
Chandler Goodwin, 2008
Matt Adams, 2004
Mark Johansen, 1994-95
Rick Jaster, 1994
Ted Mecham, 1988 *
Rad Shirley, 1987
Henry Marsh, 1976-78 *
Gary Cramer, 1973 *
Bob Richards, 1965 **
Ray Barrus, 1965 *
Amy Fowler, 2006
Rena Chesser, 2005
Kassi Andersen, 2003 **
Michaela Mannova, 2002 **
Elizabeth Jackson, 2001 **
Courtney Pugmire, 2001
Nan Evans, 2001
** national champions
* national runner-up
IAAF World Championships
The 2009 IAAF World Championships is the 12th edition of the biennial Track and Field competition. The 2009 meet takes place in Berlin, Germany, at the 75,000-seat capacity Olympiastadion, Aug. 15-25. Some 2,500 athletes representing 213 countries will be participating.