Even in a world that counts curling (not hair) and dressage among its sports, the steeplechase is a strange event, an oddity, part distance running, hurdling, roller derby and obstacle course.

The event originated in 18th-century Ireland as a horse race from one town’s church steeple to another town’s church steeple. It has since been adapted to synthetic tracks and has become a staple of collegiate and professional track and field. The modern iteration consists of running 3,000 meters — 7½ laps — while hurdling 28 heavy barriers and seven water jumps.

It has found a home at BYU. The school was once known as Quarterback U; it would be more accurate to call it Steeple U (if not Marathon U). BYU is producing champion distance runners and, more specifically, steeplechasers.

At the ongoing Olympic trials, BYU’s Kenneth Rooks and James Corrigan finished 1-3 in the steeplechase to win spots on the U.S. Olympic team (Corrigan still must post an Olympic-qualifying time to make the team, despite his third-place finish). Courtney Wayment, a former BYU athlete, is expected to join them on the Olympic team when she (and BYU’s Lexy Halladay) race in Thursday night’s final of the women’s steeplechase.

From national champion to Olympic hopeful? BYU’s Courtney Wayment is on her way

BYU has found a niche. The school has produced eight NCAA champions (four men, four women) and 38 first-team All-Americans in the steeplechase, 10 in the last five years; four BYU steeplechasers have represented the U.S. in the Olympic Games, totaling seven Olympic berths (see lists below). Wayment would bring the total to eight.

“BYU has one of, if not the best, steeplechase programs in the country,” said Josh McAdams, a former BYU NCAA steeplechase champion and Olympian, “and going 1-3 at an Olympic trials is testament to that. We’ll continue to see great things from the men and women’s programs at Steeple U.”

The early years

Its origins lie in the early 1970s with a man named Pat Shane. He was a steeplechaser at BYU who became a coach at BYU. He realized, like a handful of others at the time (most notably Weber State’s longtime coach, Chick Hislop), that the steeplechase was the great equalizer. Take a good, but not great, distance runner, make him an adept technician who can hurdle and negotiate the water jumps efficiently, and, voila, you have a great steeplechaser. Shane began to convert distance runners into steeplechasers, just as Hislop was doing at Weber State, well ahead of the competition.

BYU coach Pat Shane, left, confers with Heidi Magill at a meet during his coaching days in Provo. | Mark Philbrick, BYU

“The reason is because, of all the distance events on the track, the steeplechase has a unique component — a technical component,” the now-retired Shane explains. “You’re hurdling. You’ve got to get over barriers and the water jump, and you’ve got to be efficient in doing that. It’s a distance race; you must conserve energy.”

He became a “stickler” — his word — with technique because proper technique conserves energy. An awkward hurdler uses more oxygen than a technically proficient hurdler.

Shane consulted the late Willard Hirschi, who coached hurdlers at BYU, to learn the nuances of hurdle technique. The rest was trial and error. He discovered that it was more efficient, for example, to accelerate into the water jump to gain enough momentum to land where the water was shallow at the far end of the pit, not the closer deep end. It was more efficient to steer clear of running in the pack, especially in the early part of the race before the field strings out, so that they don’t impede runners’ ability to accelerate into the water jump and prevent a clear path to the hurdle; decelerating or stutter-stepping during an approach to a hurdle uses more energy, just as a car burns more gas in stop-and-go traffic.

“The whole point was to take athletes who wouldn’t be as successful in the 1,500 and 5,000 and put them in the steeplechase and work on technique,” says Shane.

Henry Marsh | BYU Photo

Marvelous Marsh

He began steering distance runners to the steeplechase. One of them was a freshman named Henry Marsh. The two had been teammates in cross-country, and Shane, having exhausted his NCAA eligibility in track, began coaching steeplechasers as a graduate assistant at the request of BYU coaches. He worked closely with Marsh, who quickly became a brilliant tactician and technician. He hurdled well. He ran at the back of the pack much of the race to steer clear of trouble and allow a smooth approach to the barriers. And he had a sensational kick at the end of races. Following his freshman year, Marsh served a two-year church mission, and then he and Shane picked up where they left off in 1976.

What’s next for BYU phenom Kenneth Rooks?

Marsh’s ascendance in track was sensational that spring. He qualified for the NCAA meet with a time of 8:55. He finished second in the NCAA championships with a time of 8:27.9, qualifying him for the Olympic trials, where he placed second to qualify for the Olympics. He placed 10th in the Olympic final. Marsh went on to qualify for four Olympic teams, ranked No. 1 in the world three times, and set a longstanding American record.

At the time, the steeplechase was not an NCAA event for women. Shane, who became the women’s distance coach at BYU, lobbied for the steeplechase behind the scenes and in 2001 it was finally added to the collegiate program. Shane had already begun preparing BYU’s female runners for the event a year earlier, so they hit the ground running, so to speak. BYU athletes won the first three steeplechases at the NCAA championships — Elizabeth Jackson in 2001, Michaela Mannova in 2002 and Kassi Anderson in 2003.

“He was smart,” says Ed Eyestone, BYU’s head coach. “A year in advance (of the NCAA adopting the steeplechase) he had his girls doing steeplechase drills. When the event got the go from the NCAA, he had the only race cars on the track. He was talking about the steeplechase a year in advance, and he was very good at it.”

BYU steeplechase runner Kenneth Rooks, right, poses for a photo with his coach, Ed Eyestone, and former teammate Conner Mantz. | Provided by Kenneth Rooks

If Shane got the steeplechase program going, Eyestone came along and gave it another boost. A four-time NCAA champion and two-time Olympic marathoner, Eyestone began working as a volunteer assistant coach at Weber State — which was located near his home at the time — the last three years of his professional running career. He began to learn the nuances of the steeplechase from Hislop, the acknowledged master of the event, a man who was asked to address coaching clinics all over the country about steeplechasing.

“I got the tutorial on steeplechasing,” says Eyestone. “Everything I know about steeplechasing came from Chick. He prided himself as the steeplechase guru. He was known for it. He drilled it in all of us that if you could be a good runner on the local college scene and if you worked on the steeple, you could become an All-American; and if you were an All-American in open races, you could be a national champion in the steeplechase.

“Most people are too lazy or not patient enough to learn the technique or they’re afraid to jump over barriers. The pool is going to be smaller than you have to contend with in other events. Everyone can run, but not everyone can run and jump over immovable barriers. It cuts out a lot of people.”

‘You have to have some courage’

When considering potential steeplechasers, Eyestone looks for athleticism and flexibility. “Also, you have to have some courage,” he adds. “Dem barriers are not movin’.”

Falls and crashes are the obvious hazards of the sport, as Eyestone and Rooks discovered at the 2023 U.S. championships. Rooks got caught in a traffic jam and was forced to take the barrier awkwardly some 900 meters into the race. He wrapped himself around the barrier, somersaulting to the track and rolling twice (somehow, he got back up and caught the leaders and ended up winning the race).

Kenneth Rooks crosses the finish line to win the men's 3000 meter steeplechase final during the U.S. track and field championships in Eugene, Ore., Saturday, July 8, 2023.
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. Despite taking an early spill, Rooks rebounded to win the race. | Ashley Landis, Associated Press

Notwithstanding, Rooks, whose style and skills are remarkably similar to Marsh’s, is a prime example of efficiency. He ran the last half-mile of his victory in last weekend’s Olympic trials final in two minutes flat. As Eyestone put it, “Most people can’t do that in an open 3,000.”

Eyestone, with his tutelage under Hislop finished, became BYU’s distance coach in time for the 2000-01 school year, and a few years later the school’s male steeplechasers began to assert themselves again. He eventually hired Diljeet Taylor to coach the women’s distance program and she also nurtured strong steeplechasers.

Courtney Wayment won the 2022 NCAA championships and made the 2023 U.S. world championships team. Rooks won both the NCAA and U.S. championships in 2023, and last weekend Rooks and Corrigan finished first and third, respectively in the Olympic trials, which doubled as the U.S. championships.

Former Weber State track coach Chick Hislop stands at the track that bears his name, the Charles “Chick” Hislop Track. Hislop was an early pioneer in the steeplechase. | Weber State

BYU will likely have two entries in the Olympic steeplechase — Rooks and Wayment (Corrigan would have to lower his personal record by more than six seconds to qualify, and he must do it this weekend). BYU also will have three runners in the 2024 Olympic marathon, which means the school has filled six Olympic marathon berths (Rory Linkletter, Conner Mantz and Clayton Young in 2024, Jared Ward in 2016, Eyestone in 1984 and 1988).

BYU is either Steeplechase U — or Marathon U. Either way, the school is making a name for itself in distance running.

BYU’s 38 first-team All-Americans in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, including eight NCAA champions

  • 2023: Kenneth Rooks,* Lexy Halladay.
  • 2022: Kenneth Rooks, Courtney Wayment.*
  • 2021: Greg Marsing, Courtney Wayment.
  • 2019: Matt Owens, Erica Birk.
  • 2018: Matt Owens, Clayson Shumway.
  • 2013: Curtis Carr.
  • 2010: Richard Nelson.
  • 2009: Richard Nelson, Kyle Perry.*
  • 2008: Angela Wagner.
  • 2007: Chandler Goodwin, Kassi Anderson.
  • 2006: Josh McAdams,* Amy Fowler.
  • 2005: Rena Chesser.
  • 2004: Matt Adams, Kassi Anderson, Michaela Mannova.
  • 2003: Kassi Anderson.*
  • 2002: Michaela Mannova.*
  • 2001: Elizabeth Jackson,* Nan Evans, Courtney Meldrum.
  • 1995: Mark Johansen.
  • 1994: Mark Johansen.
  • 1988: Ted Mecham.
  • 1987: Rad Shirley.
  • 1978: Henry Marsh.
  • 1977: Henry Marsh.
  • 1976: Henry Marsh.
  • 1973: Gary Cramer.
  • 1966: Bob Richards.*
  • 1965: Ray Barrus.

* NCAA champion

BYU steeplechasers who qualified for the Olympic Games

  • 1976: Henry Marsh.
  • 1980: Henry Marsh.
  • 1984: Henry Marsh.
  • 1988: Henry Marsh.
  • 2008: Josh McAdams.
  • 2024: Kenneth Rooks, James Corrigan#.

# still must meet the Olympic qualifying time

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