Ever since he did a star turn — or rather, a star fall — in his victory at the U.S. national track and field championships, BYU’s Kenneth Rooks has been trying to navigate a sudden crush of opportunities. There are requests to do interviews and podcasts. There are agents to consider (he chose one). There are NIL offers to weigh. There is the opportunity to turn pro. But, as he says, “I’m putting those things on a shelf. I don’t need to worry about them now.” He’s got one more urgent matter to address. He qualified to compete in the World Athletics Championships, which will be held Aug. 19-27 in Budapest.

“I want to take advantage of the opportunity that was presented to me,” he says. “It’s an opportunity I hope I can get again, but you don’t know what the future holds.” — BYU steeplechaser Kenneth Rooks on qualifying for the World Athletics Championships

“I want to take advantage of the opportunity that was presented to me,” he says. “It’s an opportunity I hope I can get again, but you don’t know what the future holds.”

You remember Rooks, don’t you? He became an internet sensation when he won the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the U.S. Outdoor National Track and Field Championships earlier this summer — after falling. Unable to hurdle a heavy wooden barrier in heavy traffic, he fell over the barrier and rolled twice on the track while rivals jumped over him. Then he got back up and eventually caught the leaders and outsprinted them in the homestretch.

“I have been getting a lot of attention for that,” he says. “Lots of people are excited for me and wishing me well. There have been a lot of opportunities for me and I have been busy, but I feel like I’ve been able to balance things.”

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Rooks is working with renowned running agent Ray Flynn to help him sort through the various NIL (name, image and likeness) possibilities. He trains in the morning — sometimes with BYU-alums-turned-professionals Conner Mantz, Jared Ward and Clayton Young — and spends his afternoons working a civil engineering internship.

It has been a long season for Rooks, one that began last fall in cross-country and continued through the indoor and outdoor collegiate seasons. His season won’t end until late August, which is about the time he would normally be returning from summer break to begin training in earnest for cross-country.

After the world championships, he will take time off and then resume training for his senior season of college cross-country. Beyond that, he is uncertain about whether he will turn pro in the spring or compete for BYU, although he has two more years of school. The Olympic trials are looming next summer.

“Track is up in the air,” he says. “I could turn professional after cross-country, or I could stay. At some point, I think I’ve been successful enough to have the opportunity to run professionally, and it would be smart for me to capitalize on those opportunities. I have been trying to gather information about turning pro, and I’ve been working with an agent for the NIL opportunities.” 

All of this has happened rather abruptly. Rooks finished no better than sixth in the 2022 NCAA championships and 10th at the U.S. championships. He improved his best time in one season by six seconds, and that was after falling.

“I definitely was not expecting to have such success going into the season,” he says. “But I did recognize that I could have an opportunity maybe to win an NCAA championship. I sat down with (BYU coaches Ed Eyestone and Ryan Waite) and we talked about process-based goals, making smart decisions in the race, racing well, and maybe win the race. I did that because I didn’t want to set limits on myself.”

Rooks and his coaches tried to discuss all the various ways the race could play out based on their knowledge of his competitors, from a fast pace off the gun to a burst over the final mile. On his own, Rooks explored another possibility. Two weeks before the NCAA race he fell over the same barrier he would fall over at the U.S. championships. That prompted him to come up with a strategy if that happened, concluding that he shouldn’t try to catch up to the competition immediately (which eats up energy) but to reel in the field gradually. Which is what he did.

After the race, many of the top finishers were unaware that Rooks had fallen. It wasn’t until the next day, when Rooks bumped into his rivals in the grandstands at the stadium, that they lavished congratulations on him, having seen the race replay.

Matthew Wilkinson, who finished sixth, was among those who did see Rooks fall. He confessed to Rooks that when he saw him fall, he thought to himself, “Oh, good, I’m going to finally beat Kenneth Rooks.”

Rooks, who is the first BYU athlete ever to win both the NCAA championships and the USA championships while still a collegian, will take another big step in his career when he steps on the track in Budapest. It will be his first international race. Eyestone never really considered sending Rooks to Europe before the world championships to get in another race.

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“With all the racing he’s done and the big meets he’s raced, he’s different than the vast majority of guys,” says the coach. “It would’ve been a mistake to run in Europe. He’s pretty race savvy. We gave him a week just to chill with his family and do some easy running, and then when he returned we went back to work. He looks good.”

Rooks won the national championships with a time of 8:16.78; at the world championships he will compete with Ethiopia’s Lamecha Girma, who set the world record of 7:52.11 a month ago. He’s one of five athletes who have run under 8:06 this year. On the other hand, championship races often devolve into tactical affairs. Last year’s world championship race was won with a time of 8:25.13.

How fast can Rooks run this season? “Sub 8:10 in the right scenario,” says Eyestone. “It might require that to make the final. But last year was sit-and-kick with a 58-second last lap.”

Rooks could handle that sort of race, but if it turns into a scorching sub-eight pace he will have to make some decisions on the fly. “I hope it doesn’t turn into a time trial,” says Eyestone. “Normally nobody wants to be that guy (who leads a fast pace), but I can see with the depth and talent out there that someone might do that.”

Rooks himself says, “I don’t know how the race will play out, but I’m in shape to run 8:10 or faster. I’m capable of making the final. I have to make good decisions in the race and stay present.”

Rooks confesses, “I’ll be nervous when I show up — when I arrive in Budapest and when I see the track. It’s going to be exciting. (USATF) is sending my USA gear (uniform, warmups, etc.). I’m excited to open the box and see it.”

Second place finisher Benard Keter congratulates winner Kenneth Rooks after the men’s 3000 meter steeplechase final during the U.S. track and field championships in Eugene, Ore., Saturday, July 8, 2023. | Ashley Landis, Associated Press