In one fell swoop last weekend in Los Angeles, BYU’s Kenneth Rooks set the American collegiate record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, recorded the fastest time in the world so far this year, and broke a school record that had lasted almost half of a century — one that was set by the four-time Olympian Henry Marsh.

“Watching it all unfold was just one of those goose-bump sort of moments.” — BYU track coach Ed Eyestone

Rooks beat a field of professionals and at least one Olympian in running a time of 8:17.62 in the Sound Running Track Festival, which twice denied him entry in the race and only relented when another runner dropped out. Rooks beat his nearest rival by three seconds and cut the American collegiate record by one second, his personal record by five seconds, and BYU’s school record by four seconds.

No American collegian has ever run faster, and only one foreign athlete has run faster while competing for an American university. In 1978, Olympian Henry Rono covered the race in an aberrational 8:05.4, one of four world records he set at four different distances that year.

Then there was the record held by the other Henry. In 1977, Marsh covered the steeplechase in 8:21.60, which stood as the school record for 46 years. Two NCAA steeplechase champions passed through the school during that time, but even they couldn’t come closer than eight seconds of Marsh’s time.

Rooks, a junior engineering student from Washington, served notice last summer that the record was doomed when he raced to a time of 8:22.56 in the USA national championships. Then on Saturday the record fell.

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“I was honestly a little bit in awe towards the end of the race when I took the lead with 200 to go,” Rooks said. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m actually going to win this thing today.’ It’s cool to win and accomplish some things I didn’t even think about accomplishing.”

On the other coast, Marsh was walking through a parking lot in Miami after watching a Formula 1 race when he got a phone call. Had he heard the news about his record, he was asked? No, he said. When told of Rooks’ performance, he said, “Ohhh, that’s awesome! How fast did he run?” When told the time he said, “Oh, that’s fast! Wow. That’s awesome that the record was broken. It needed to be broken.”

Marsh set the record the year that “Star Wars” debuted, the first Apple computers were sold, Jimmy Carter was sworn in as president. Marsh went on to make four Olympic teams, rank No. 1 in the world three times, and break the American record four times, the last one (8:09.17) enduring 21 years. He has a granddaughter who will attend BYU on a music scholarship in the fall.

Times have changed since Marsh’s heyday, thanks to ever-evolving runners and the arrival of high-tech racing shoes. In 1976, Marsh placed 10th in the Olympic Games with a time of 8:23.9 — which wouldn’t be fast enough to qualify for the U.S. team these days. “It’s a whole different standard now,” said Marsh, who at the time was less than a year removed from serving a two-year church mission and was not even on scholarship.

Before last weekend, Rooks had run two steeplechase races — the Stanford Invitational and the Bryan Clay Invitational — and won easily. Too easily. Without strong competition for pacing, he produced modest times —  8:33.60 and 8:31.83. That’s why Eyestone persisted  in trying to enter him in the professional race, but it wasn’t easy.

Eyestone was rejected twice when he tried to get Rooks into the Sound Running Track Festival. The field was full, he was told, and the meet didn’t want a college runner, even one with Rooks’ credentials. Finally, Eyestone asked the meet director if he would make him the first alternate if one of the pros scratched, promising, “If you let him in the meet, he will not disappoint.” The next day another runner scratched and Rooks took his place and delivered on his coach’s promise.

“With the right conditions and right competition, we really felt like a sub-8:20 was in the cards,” says Eyestone.

Eyestone took 15 runners to L.A., with 14 of them competing in a college meet — the Oxy Invitational — a few miles away from the Sound Running Track Festival. He elected to watch the bigger group compete, so he watched Rooks’ race on a cellphone. “I could see he was pulling off the race plan to a T and then some,” said the coach.

Eyestone has shown videos of Marsh’s race to Rooks for instructive reasons. Like Marsh, Rooks tends to hang back in the pack and work his way to the front later in the race to put himself in position to attack the leader. He also possesses Marsh’s strong finishing kick.

After the first 200 meters, Rooks dropped back into the pack and was content to stay there for the first mile or so. With 1,000 meters to go, a six-man pack had gapped the field and Hillary Bor, a former Olympian, began to assert himself. When Bor surged and broke away from the lead pack with 600 meters to go, Rooks moved into second place and began to chip away at Bor’s lead.

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He caught him on the final lap and passed him in the final 200 meters, pulling away on the homestretch. He ran the final lap in 59.99 seconds, compared to Bor’s 64.17. Bor faded to third place, with George Beamish taking second in 8:20.62, .05 ahead of Bor.

“Kenneth’s run was one of historic proportions,” Eyestone added. “Watching it all unfold was just one of those goose-bump sort of moments. … After he passed Bor I got the tingles because I knew it was going to be a fast time.”

Eyestone’s phone began to “blow up” during the late stages of the race. Ray Flynn, the top agent for world-class distance runners, was calling from the Sound meet. Eyestone had told him to “keep an eye out for Rooks. He’s someone you might be interested in.” Eyestone answered the call — “I told you he was a good one!” — and Flynn provided play-by-play for the rest of the race by phone.

Asked if the race changes his outlook on the future, Rooks said, “I don’t know if it changes my perspective a lot. But it does make me think a little more about the Olympics or world championships. It’s become a little more real that that’s a possibility. The biggest thing is to keep the same mindset. Don’t do anything different. Just keep doing the same things that have made me successful.”

“I hope he takes off,” Marsh said. “It’s a good sign that he’s dropping those times now and doing it this early in the season. It shows last year wasn’t a fluke.”

Rooks, who has never met Marsh, said, “His name has been at the top of our record board for a long time. It’s inspiring. To think how fast he ran in the ’70s and to be able to beat his record …”

BYU junior Kenneth Rooks, shown here competing in the Robinson Invitational in Provo, broke the NCAA steeplechase record at the Sound Running Track Festival in Los Angeles. | Mattew Norton, BYU Photo