Zach Hunter | Posted: 10 Jul 2023 | Updated: 30 Jul 2023

Rooks captures USATF steeplechase title with remarkable comeback

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USATF Steeplechase Champion

EUGENE, Ore. — BYU distance runner Kenneth Rooks delivered a comeback for the ages to claim the U.S. steeplechase title despite an early fall at the USA Track and Field Championships at Hayward Field Saturday.

"Before the race, that's a scenario I went through if I fell," said Rooks. "Initially when I hopped up, I was able to make a decision fairly quickly to just get up and move forward. I knew that I just had to work my way back slowly as I came to this race wanting to give it my all. I feel really blessed."

Rooks headlined the weekend with several other past and present Cougars competing in the nation’s premiere annual track and field meet. 

Building off the momentum of his NCAA steeplechase title just four weeks ago, Rooks' come-from-behind championship performance of 8:16.78 bested all other 13 collegiate and professional athletes and surpassed his own BYU school record of 8:17.62 set in May. He separated ahead of the tightly contested field to edge out runner-up Benard Keter (U.S. Army) by less than half a second. The junior also bested June's NCAA steeplechase runner-up and former Montana State standout Duncan Hamilton, who finished at 8:24.91 to take eighth overall.

Rooks began the race in the middle of the pack before a runner directly ahead of him stuttered on a barrier jump, causing Rooks to stumble over the barrier just over two minutes into the race. Falling to last place with a near eight-second gap, he quickly collected himself as the national champion steadily fought his way back into the crowded field.

“When I saw him fall, my heart fell,” said BYU director of track and field Ed Eyestone. “To come back from many seconds behind at this level of competition was obviously a performance for the ages. He bounced back up and was so smart in the remaining laps.”

Nearing two laps to go, Rooks worked himself into eighth to climb squarely back to the center of the pack. With 500 meters remaining, he made his move to the outside before rising up to fourth as the bell rang. Clearing the final barrier into the last 60 meters, he thrust himself into the lead to close out a victory after clocking a 1:01.55 closing lap.

“Going in, we knew he had an excellent chance of doing well and winning,” Eyestone said. “To see him barrel through and come around the last turn with a perfect last jump was inspiring to a whole new level. It was a privilege to witness in person and see Kenny have so much success.”

Fellow Cougar teammate Dallin Shurts also competed, placing fifth in the discus throw with a heave of 61.92m/203-2 to earn a second consecutive top-five finish at the USATF Championships. Cameron Bates threw for a mark of 70.17m/230-2 in the javelin toss to place ninth. 

Multiple former BYU athletes placed high in their respective events. Three-time NCAA First Team All-American pole vaulter Zach McWhorter placed second with a new personal-best jump of 5.86m/19-2.75. He will represent the USA at the World Championships this August in Budapest. Two-time NCAA cross country champion (2020-21, 2021) Conner Mantz took a sixth-place finish in the 10,000 meters with a time of 28:29.36 in addition to a 10th-place 5,000-meter finish of 13:30.85. Mid-distance alum Abraham Alverado claimed fourth in the 800-meters after crossing the line at 1:46.25 to advance to the finals where he took seventh (1:48.85). Recent graduate Brandon Garnica also competed in the 10,000-meters. 

Rooks aims to join former Cougars Zach McWhorter and marathon runner Nicolas Montanez in the 2023 World Athletics Championships in Budapest, Hungary Aug. 19-27.

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