When BYU’s James Corrigan rallied to a third-place finish in the 3,000-meter steeplechase Sunday night in the U.S. Olympic track and field trials, it set off a wild celebration among his coaches and teammates, but this quickly gave way to a moment of realization, if not panic: Now what do we do?

The top three finishers in each event at the trials earn a spot on the Olympic team with one caveat: They also must achieve an Olympic qualifying time anytime within the last year, or collect enough world-ranking points to place among the top 36 in the world.

Corrigan has neither.

Kenneth Rooks, the two-time national champion from BYU, won the race, as expected. What wasn’t expected was Corrigan’s performance. He came out of nowhere just to qualify for the trials, let alone claim one of the highly coveted top three places.

His third-place finish ignited a flurry of behind-the-scenes maneuvering to give Corrigan one more shot at achieving the Olympic standard. The opportunity of a lifetime is on the line — a chance to compete in the Olympic Games.

There is an urgency to the situation. The window for a qualifying time, which opened July 1, 2023, closes June 30 — Sunday night.

Flurry of phone calls

Minutes after Corrigan crossed the finish line, BYU coach Ed Eyestone began making phone calls and consulting agents and meet officials to find another race in which his young runner could try to achieve the qualifying mark. He talked to Ray Flynn, a top agent in the running world (Rooks is one of his clients), and asked him if there was a meet in Europe in which Corrigan could race. Flynn said no and that the only option was an all-comers meet in Philadelphia on Saturday. There was one more challenge: The steeplechase was not on the meet schedule.

The making of a steeplechaser. How BYU became Steeplechase U.
BYU coach Ed Eyestone had a plan for Olympic trials — his two runners did the rest

As luck would have it, Aaron Robison, the meet director of the famed Penn Relays, is the grandson of legendary BYU coach Clarence Robison, the son of former BYU coach Mark, and one of Eyestone’s former athletes. Eyestone called him and together they arranged not only to add the steeplechase to the program but to make it the last event on the schedule, at 8 p.m., to get the coolest conditions possible during the ongoing East Coast heat wave.

Meanwhile, Rooks volunteered to serve as a rabbit for Corrigan, meaning he will pace at least six of the race’s 7 ½ laps. Eyestone made another call to recruit a second rabbit — Dan Michalski, an Air Force Academy runner who had competed in the first round of the steeplechase trials but failed to advance to the final. Michalski agreed.

“Boosters made him an offer he couldn’t refuse,” said Eyestone.

Michalski will pace the first mile, with Rooks and Corrigan in tow, and then Rooks will lead the next 2 ½ or so laps, trying to maintain the target pace.

“Kenneth volunteered to help his teammate,” says Eyestone. “Without him there for at least a majority of the race, it would be very tough (for Corrigan to hit the target time).”

Flying to Philly

Corrigan and Rooks flew to Philadelphia Thursday. Eyestone joined them Friday.

Corrigan and Rooks will race Saturday with only six days of recovery since the finals of the Olympic trials, which was their second race in three days. Those had to be taxing efforts for Corrigan, who produced a whopping 7 ½-second personal record in the semifinals and then had to rally on the gun lap of the finals to pass five runners.

“We don’t have the whole summer (to get a qualifying time),” said Eyestone, shortly after the finals. “We knew that coming in. It is what it is. We’re not crying about it. In fact, we’re ecstatic to be in this position.”

For the record, none of the top three finishers in the steeplechase have met the qualifying time of 8:15.00.

Rooks, the two-time U.S. champion, is close, with a personal record of 8:15.08 that he ran on May 11. Matthew Wilkinson, the runner-up, has a best time of 8:16.59. Corrigan’s best time before the Olympic trials was a modest 8:28.78, which is why his performance in the trials caught everyone off guard. He ran 8:21.22 in the semifinals. That’s a long way from 8:15.00, but he likely will qualify even if he’s a little short of that time.

It’s complicated. A world-ranking system has been devised to determine what, if any, non-time qualifiers advance to the Olympics to fill out a 36-man field. It is based on performances (times) and quality of victories (who they have beaten), and ultimately those who finish among the top 36 athletes in the world make the cut. Rooks is ranked 24th in the world and Wilkinson 36th; they’re certain to qualify for the Olympics.

What needs to happen

Corrigan’s situation is tenuous. His performance in the trials raised his ranking from 116th to 82nd. It’s quite a stretch for him to drop another 6.22 seconds to meet the standard, which would be almost 14 seconds under his pretrials PR. Eyestone thinks it won’t be necessary.

“There’s a chance that if he runs under 8:20, he could make the team,” says Eyestone.

That’s because it would likely boost his world-ranking points enough to place him among the top 36.

Eyestone did some more behind-the-scenes maneuvering to maximize the value of Saturday’s race.


With Eyestone’s encouragement, the meet was upgraded to “challenger-meet” status, which raises the ranking (or quality) of the competition and therefore its potential to garner more world-ranking points for Corrigan. One of the metrics that World Athletics considers is the average for an athlete’s top three races (in terms of points). A good race in Philadelphia, combined with his two races in the trials, might be enough to send him to Paris.

Corrigan is not the only one who finds himself in this situation. Several of the top three finishers in the Olympic trials lack qualifying marks, including Chari Hawkins and Taliyah Brooks, the second- and third-place finishers in the heptathlon. The difference is their world ranking — Hawkins is 10th and Brooks 16th. In other words, they’re in.

BYU steeplechaser James Corrigan competes in the NCAA Outdoor Championships June 5, 2024, in Eugene, Oregon.
BYU steeplechaser James Corrigan competes in the NCAA Outdoor Championships, June 5, 2024, in Eugene, Oregon. | Aaron Cornia, courtesy BYU Photo

If Corrigan fails to qualify, the Olympic berth would likely go to Anthony Rotich or Hillary Bor, two Kenyan-born naturalized U.S. citizens who have already secured qualifying times. They finished eighth and 13th, respectively, in the Olympic trials, badly beaten by Rooks and Corrigan.

Fair or not, that’s the system under World Athletics, the international governing body for track and field. It would be simpler simply to advance the top three finishers in the trials to the Olympics and eliminate qualifying times, but World Athletics is trying to ensure quality competitions. Because of that, Corrigan made a 2,000-mile trip across the country in an 11th-hour bid to qualify for the Paris Olympics.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.