(c) 2024 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved. Published with permission.

EUGENE, ORE. (23-Jun) — Kenneth Rooks dominated the 3000-meter steeplechase at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials — Track & Field here tonight at Hayward Field and is all but assured of a place in the Summer Games in Paris. Rooks lacks the Olympic qualifying time of 8:15.00, but his world ranking should carry him to the Stade de France in August. However, the fate of second and third place finishers Matthew Wilkinson and James Corrigan is less certain.

On a relatively cool evening the early pace was sluggish. Joey Berriatua led at the 1000-meter mark in a pedestrian 3:00.18. Derek Johnson briefly took the lead after halfway, before Wilkinson looked to break open the race by moving to the front with three laps to go. His time at the front was also short-lived, as Rooks accelerated down the homestretch and took over with two laps to go. He quickly opened up a 10-meter lead down the penultimate backstretch, and the race was essentially over, at least for the winner.

Rooks won comfortably in 8:21.92, more than a second clear of the fast-closing Wilkinson (8:23.00). BYU’s Corrigan (8:26.78) –only ninth in the NCAA final two weeks ago and only seventh here at the bell– blasted into third place over the final water jump and quickly pulled away from Benard Keter and Anthony Rotich for the final spot.

Evan Jager (8:28.73), sixth with 200 meters to go, closed well to finish fourth, a position that may actually propel him to his third Olympic team.

Defending Trials champion Hillary Bor (8:37.65) struggled and took 13th.  Mid-race, he hurdled the water jump, lost his balance, and crashed into the water pool on his back.  He fought back, and was in fourth place at the bell, but stumbled again on the final lap.

Rooks was ready for anything tonight, he said.

“Nobody was willing to push it, so the race plan was just to respond to whatever was gonna happen,” said Rooks, last year’s NCAA and USATF champion while at BYU. “If it went out slow I know how to respond to that. I actually ended up making the big move at the end, which was a little earlier than probably we planned. I always give Coach Eyestone a little anxiety when I make the move early, but I have the fitness to be able to do that and we both trust in that as well.”

Rooks narrowly missed the Olympic standard when he ran 8:15.08 in May, but is currently ranked high enough in World Athletics “Road to Paris” rankings list that he should get a spot in the Olympic field.

Wilkinson, who lowered his personal best to 8:16.59 this spring, should also maintain a quota spot based on this performance. It’s a result that seemed unlikely as recently as 2021, when Wilkinson was an NCAA Division III champion at Carleton College in Minnesota. He then transferred to the University of Minnesota, where he was the 2023 Big Ten champion and finished sixth at the USATF championships.

Although he couldn’t match Rooks’s finish, he kept up the pursuit. “I was like, he’s moving [and] if I can stay close to him, he’s going to take me to the line, he’s going to take me to Paris,” Wilkinson said. “I just knew I had to stay as close to him as possible.”

The third team berth, however, could get tricky. Corrigan, who trains with Rooks, likely won’t be ranked high enough.  However, according to reporting by Jon Gault at LetsRun.com Corrigan may attempt to chase the standard next week (the last available date to post a qualifying mark is June 30).  There were no details on where or when that would occur.

Should Corrigan fail to achieve the qualifying mark, that could open up the door for Jager, who was once the most dominant American in the event, but has struggled in recent years. After placing sixth at the 2022 World Athletics Championships, Jager didn’t run a steeplechase at all in 2023. His return to form this spring was slow, but he finally hit the qualifying mark for the Olympic Trials in early June, running 8:25.77.

“I’m not gonna get my hopes up yet,” said Jager, who won seven straight U.S. titles between 2012 and 2018, took silver at the Rio Olympics and set the U.S. record (8:00.45) in 2015. “I’ll be happy about that in a week if that’s what it comes to.”

That he might somehow qualify for Paris without finishing in the top three wasn’t on his mind. “Honestly I really didn’t realize it until the final 100 meters. It wasn’t something that I was really thinking of before the race, there might be someone finishing ahead of me that’s not in the quota,” he said. “I was really only focused on top three and that wasn’t even in the back of my mind.”

But on the final half lap, as the pack broke apart, he started doing the math. “Coming off the last water jump there were a lot of guys ahead of me and when I passed them and realized that third place was the BYU kid, my mind immediately switched and it gave me an extra boost off the last barrier,” he said. “I was definitely able to dig down deeper with that in mind, for sure. I guess I thought about it the last seven seconds of the race.”

Earlier in the evening, the women’s 800 semi-finals were eventful, with LSU’s Michaela Rose running away from the first section early (57.75 at 400 meters), only to cede the lead to defending Olympic champion Athing Mu (1:58.84) on the outside and Kate Grace (1:58.97) on the inside, just steps from the line. Grace tumbled into the infield, picking up scrapes on her arms and knee after slamming into an electronic sign board. Rose was rewarded for her tactics, clocking 1:59.00, which was good enough to take one of the three time-qualifying spots. Juliette Whittaker (1:59.58), this year’s NCAA indoor and outdoor champion for Stanford, and Kristie Schoffield (2:00.64) got the others.

For Grace, it was her fastest time since 2021 and, more importantly, got her under the Olympic qualifying standard of 1:59.30. “I kind of knew to let her go,” she said of Rose’s trademark front-running. “But I really respect her for how she always goes out and runs.”  She added: “I figured Athing would be right on her, so I could tuck in behind Athing and then just go for it. I knew the other college girls tend to go wide, so it worked out.”

In the second heat, Sage Hurta-Klecker controlled the pace most of the way, but had to hold off the field down the homestretch. Raevyn Rogers (2:01.08) edged ahead just before the line, but Hurta-Klecker (2:01.11) held on to an automatic qualifying slot. Two-time Olympian Ajee’ Wilson (2:01.25), running her best race of the year, came up just short in third.

Allie Wilson, this year’s U.S. indoor champion, pulled away from the field after 300 meters and held on to win the third section in 2:00.29. Nia Akins (2:00.87) held off Sammy Watson (2:01.01) for second place and a spot in Monday’s final.

The men’s 1500 final will also be held Monday evening following Saturday’s semifinals, when Yared Nuguse and Cole Hocker cemented their status as favorites to make the team.

Hocker, the Trials winner three years ago, cruised home in 3:37.89 ahead of a tightly bunched pack. Collegians Liam Murphy of Villanova and Ethan Stand of North Carolina turned to each other and celebrated as they crossed the line in second and third (both in 3:38.08) to advance. Cooper Teare (3:38.26) and NCAA 1500 champ Joe Waskom (3:38.29) grabbed the final two automatic spots, while veteran Sam Prakel (3:38.50) and two-time NCAA indoor mile champion Luke Houser (3:39.06) came up short, placing sixth and seventh.

In the second section, Nuguse went right to the front and never relinquished the lead en route to equaling the meet record of 3:34.09 set by Matthew Centrowitz in 2016.  World road mile champion Hobbs Kessler (3:34.16) and Henry Wynne (3:34.40) were close behind, while crowd favorite Craig Engels (3:35.08) finished seventh to take the final time qualifier.

Nuguse, who had lingered in the pack during Friday’s first-round heat, was happy to be back up front in the semis and was feeling confident as he looks to make his second Olympic team. “I’ve done USAs before, the final’s always going to be where everyone is going all out for everything their worth, so I definitely don’t underestimate it. But [I’m] going to run the race I want to run,” he said. “We’re all really fit, we’re all really at a high level and that’s going to make it a really great race on Monday.”

PHOTO: Kenneth Rooks wins the steeplechase at the 2024 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. (photo by Jane Monti for Race Results Weekly)