While Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise spent the weekend pitching their big-budget Hollywood movies, Kenneth Rooks, running in a pair of $150 shoes, stole the show. In a matter of minutes, he became a life lesson of overcoming, enduring and finishing.

“I guess the Lord was looking out for me and helped me prepare. I had a plan in place that if I fell, I would get up and work my way slowly to get back to the pack because a quick burst of energy afterwards to try and catch back up right away might have burnt me out.” — BYU steeplechaser Kenneth Rooks

Movie writers dream of such a script.

The BYU junior from Walla Walla, Washington, recovered from a fall to win the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon. Rooks is the first collegiate runner to win gold at the USA Championships in 32 years.

“Honestly, I don’t know how to describe it,” Rooks told “BYU Sports Nation.” “I’m just grateful for the support I have received.”

The fall

Early into the 7.5-lap race, Rooks became tangled up in the crowded field.

“The person in front of me stumbled and made it difficult for me to get my bearings on the hurdle and I just wasn’t able to get over it and I fell,” he said. “Things happen that you can’t control.”

Rooks tumbled to the ground in the same way he fell during a training run two weeks prior.

“I guess the Lord was looking out for me and helped me prepare,” he said. “I had a plan in place that if I fell, I would get up and work my way slowly to get back to the pack because a quick burst of energy afterwards to try and catch back up right away might have burnt me out.”

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Rooks started his comeback needing to catch all 13 runners ahead of him and eclipse the four-second cushion held by the leader.

“To be able to have the presence of mind to stay present in that moment was really special,” he said. “When I first went down, I was just thinking, ‘Oh crap! I guess this is where we are right now. Is my race done?’ Then I got back up and decided to keep going and see how many people I can catch.”

In true Hollywood fashion, Rooks caught them all.  

The recovery

For the next few minutes, the 5-foot-10 reigning NCAA champion channeled his inner Rocky Balboa, Maximus and Superman — conquering each competitor like a gladiator, one at a time, and setting up a stretch run for the ages.

Kenneth Rooks crosses the finish line to win the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase final during the U.S. track and field championships in Eugene, Ore., Saturday, July 8, 2023. | Ashley Landis, Associated Press

“I did a lot better than I was expecting,” he said. “That last 150 meters when I was driving to the finish, I think my mouth was wide open. Partially because I was trying to get some air, but partially because I was like, ‘Holy cow! I’m actually winning this thing! How is this happening?”           

It happened.

Even with the spill, Rooks clocked a personal-best 8:16.78 and won the race by less than half a second.

“I think I know what I’ve done. After the race, everybody was telling me congratulations and how impressed they were and what kind of life lessons they can teach,” he said. “I had track coaches come up to me and say, ‘I’m going to show my athletes video of this race.’”

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The historic run earns its place among the greatest single athletic achievements in BYU history and is worthy of Hollywood’s cinematic attention. That’s what they do with true stories of remarkable finishes that no one saw coming — not even Rooks.

“I’m still amazed that I had the presence of mind to work my way out of it.”

Henry Marsh

Former Cougar Henry Marsh is hailed as among the best steeplechasers in American history. He won the national title at BYU in 1978 and ran in three Olympics. In the moment Rooks collided with the track, Marsh’s legacy flashed across his mind.

“I didn’t think about this beforehand, but when I first fell, Henry’s name came into my mind right away,” Rooks said. “He used to go out at the back of the pack at the beginning of races and slowly move his way up. He would run at his own pace and within himself. That came into my mind too, that I needed to run like Henry Marsh.”

As a result, BYU has three steeplechase USA champions in the last 45 years, including Marsh, Rooks and Josh McAdams. Marsh and Rooks won while at BYU. McAdams earned his titles after he graduated in 2007 and 2009.

What’s next?

The victory has Rooks training for next month’s World Track and Field Championships in Budapest before he returns to BYU to compete in the Big 12.

“Right now, I plan to come back and run cross-country in the fall and then we’ll build up for the Olympic trials next year,” he said. “I have a really good shot considering I won this year.”

There isn’t an gold Oscar statue for Rooks dramatic performance, but he did get a gold medal and a good glimpse at his potential on the global stage.

Second-place finisher Benard Keter congratulates winner Kenneth Rooks after the men’s 3,000-meter steeplechase final during the U.S. track and field championships in Eugene, Ore., Saturday, July 8, 2023. | Ashley Landis, Associated Press