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TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - JAGERIt’s no stretch to say this is the biggest year of Evan Jager’s life.


Three monumental occasions highlight what Jager hopes is the year that was:

• An opportunity to claim a fifth straight steeplechase championship at the U.S. Olympic trials July 8 at Eugene’s Hayward Field, allowing him to gain one of three spots in the Olympic Games at Rio de Janeiro in August.

• An opportunity to win a medal at Rio after finishing sixth, fifth and sixth in the event at the last three major international competitions since 2012.

• An opportunity to join Sofia Hellberg-Jonsen in matrimony on Oct. 8 at Stockholm, Sweden.

That’s quite a three-month stretch for anyone, but Jager is juiced for the trifecta.

“Hopefully, it’s all good, and we can continue our celebrations on the honeymoon,” says Jager, 27, who has lived in Portland since 2008 as a member of Nike’s Bowerman Track Club.

Jager has gone from novice to the man to beat since he ran his first steeplechase in 2012 under the direction of coach Jerry Schumacher. Two months after the former Wisconsin distance runner’s first crack at the race, Jager won the steeplechase at the Olympic trials at Hayward in 8 minutes, 17.40 seconds. Two weeks later, the Algonquin, Illinois, native broke the American record for the first time, clocking 8:06.81. Jager went on to finish sixth at the Olympic Games in 2012.

Since then, the 6-2, 145-pound Jager has been dominant on the U.S. steeplechase front, claiming four straight U.S. titles while finishing fifth at the World Championships in 2013 and sixth in 2015.

Jager, who improved his American record to 8:00.45 last July 4 at Paris (despite falling over the final barrier), owns the seven fastest times in U.S. history — all under 8:09.

Jager has been training at altitude at Park City, Utah, for nearly a month after running a 3:54.21 mile at the Prefontaine Classic at Hayward Field on May 28. Schumacher has had a stable of 13 runners — nine men, four women — at Park City, including Jager’s training mates, Daniel Huling and Andy Bayer.

“Training has been really good,” Jager says. “I’ve been pretty healthy — no major problems. I hit all my mileage and have done every workout. Within the last 10 days, I’m feeling on top of my running and all of the workouts. I’m excited for where I’m at right now.”

Jager will remain there until a couple of days before the July 4 qualifying race at the trials.

“I like the way I feel coming down from altitude into racing (at sea level),” he says. If he makes the U.S. Olympic team, he’ll return to Park City for much of the five-week period leading to Rio.

“I might have a tuneup race before the Olympics,” he says, “but I’d be totally fine getting in a lot of really good workouts (at Park City) and using that as my preparation. I’ve gained a ton of confidence from just working out up here and not racing.”

Jager has put in an average of 90 miles per week of training since he arrived at Park City.

“Over the last four or five years, I’ve tried to stay between 85 and 90 for most of the season,” he says. “When races come up, I’ll drop the mileage to taper, to feel a little more poppy and have a little more energy. But I like the way I feel training hard for most of the year. I tend to feel better when I’m in that routine of running around that mileage.”

Schumacher’s runners are housed in condos at Park City. A strong brotherhood and sisterhood exists.

“Most of us on the team have been around each other for a very long time,” Jager says. “We’re with each other daily almost all year. Everyone gets along well. We’re really good friends. You get to be with the boys for a long period of time.

“It’s all about training and resting and recovering in between the workouts. I really enjoy it. I miss being in Portland, but at the same time, I love coming up to altitude and getting in really hard training.”

Jager has received a salary plus expenses from Nike since coming to Portland with Schumacher from Wisconsin in 2008. He has one other endorsement — an anti-cramping drink called “Hot Shot.” Jager says he has used it daily during his time at Park City.

“It has been incredibly hot this trip — 80 to 90 degrees most days,” he says. “It has been helpful when you’re having long track sessions and you’re under the sun for 2 or 2 1/2 hours.

“I’m sure I could try harder to reach out for other sponsors, but it causes more things for me to do. I wouldn’t want 15 sponsors; then I’d have obligations to all of them. It would take away a little bit from my training and my concentration. At some point, it would be too much. But I’m very happy with where I’m at. I have zero complaints.”

Jager has raced only three times this spring. He ran 3:39.40 in a 1,500 at Stanford, an 8:15.58 steeplechase at Los Angeles and the fast mile at the Pre meet.

“We wanted to get in at least one steeple,” Jager says. “It’s more important to get as much training as possible at altitude.”

Jager admits there is more pressure competing as a favorite to when he was an underdog back in 2012.

“Last year was an extremely hard U.S. Championships,” he says. “I took the lead with a mile to go and just held it until the finish line. Pretty stressful. I had guys on my tail the entire race.

“I feel like I’m at the point to where making the (Olympic) team isn’t the only goal. I’ve won four nationals in a row. To continue that streak is a goal of mine. There’s a little more pressure on me to continue that streak, but I would much rather be in my position than anyone else’s. It’s fun. I’m confident in my abilities and where my fitness level is at.”

Competitors in the steeplechase at the trials will have four days to wait after the qualifying race for the July 8 final.

“That’s three full days of rest,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind it being less. It’s way more than I’ve ever had before. One day between would be fine. I have no clue what the (meet officials) were thinking, but I’m sure it will bring out good competition.”

Huling — who placed fifth at last year’s World Championships, one spot ahead of Jager — enters the trials as the No. 2-ranked steeplechaser behind Jager. Bayer, in his second year specializing in the steeplechase, is fifth. What are the chances the training mates could go 1-2-3 in a blanket Bowerman TC finish at the trials?

“Pretty good,” Jager says. “Dan is a veteran who is one of the best in the world. Andy has come light years from where he started off in the steeple. He has made a huge jump from last year in both overall fitness and hurdling and water-jumping technique. He’s going to be dangerous, too. But it’s going to be a really competitive final at the trials.”

Jager was ranked No. 4 in the world last year behind three Kenyans. He admits it’s “a little bit” difficult to not look past the trials toward Rio.

“Those have been my only two goals this year — making the Olympic team, and doing well at the Olympics if I make the team,” he says. “It’s gone hand in hand for me.

“I know I’m really fit already. I’m excited for the next little bit of training I’m lined up for. I can get even more fit still. I’m not worried about my (world) ranking. There are only going to be three Kenyans in the race. My mentality wouldn’t change if there were seven.”COURTESY: EVAN JAGER - U.S. steeplechase champion Evan Jager of Portland, with fiancee Sofia Hellberg-Jonsen.

Then there is the upcoming wedding to Hellberg-Jonsen, a native Swede who ran collegiately at Mississippi. Jager and Hellberg-Jonsen met at the 2008 Junior World Championships in Poland.

“We had hotel rooms right next to each other,” Jager says. “We hung out for a week there. She came to the states for school, but I didn’t see her again until 2012. We met up again, started talking every day, and we clicked.”

Jager and Hellberg-Jonsen flew to Sweden for Christmas last year, “and that’s when I proposed,” he says.

The wedding will be the final major event of a whirlwind three months for Jager. He’s looking for a medal around his neck, then a ring on his finger.

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Twitter: @kerryeggers

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