Rooks Game-Planning Pays Off

The first man in 32 years to chalk up an NCAA/USATF steeple double, Kenneth Rooks has one more major to contest this summer, Budapest. (KEVIN MORRIS)

NOT MANY PEOPLE can watch old videos of Lasse Viren falling in the ’72 Olympic 10,000 and bouncing up to win in a World Record and say, “I did something like that.”

BYU’s Kenneth Rooks now officially has our dispensation to do so, after tumbling over a barrier midway through the USATF steeplechase, then getting up and not just working his way back into team contention, but also amazing the crowd with the victory in a new PR.

It wasn’t a move the 23-year-old had looked forward to, but he says the crucial fact was that he had, in effect, already prepared a game plan for that moment. “I’d thought about — before the race — what I would do if I fell. That made it a little bit easier to make that decision after I fell, because I already knew what I would do. I knew that I would decide to keep going, and I would get up and try and work my way back slowly to the front pack.

“Having planned beforehand and thinking about that definitely made it easier. I mean, you’re not expecting to fall. It’s not what you hope for, but in the steeplechase sometimes, you can just mess up and fall, or sometimes you may fall because someone else does something that messes you up.

“I just really wanted, at the end of the day, I wanted to be able to say that I’d given my best effort, that I’d given my all regardless of the outcome. When I caught back up to the pack and reattached myself and started racing, I recognized that I might be able to still get a top-3 spot. And so, I was pushing myself, putting myself in it.”

The victory, the PR 8:16.78, all of it puts Rooks into a great spot heading into Budapest, which will be his first national team experience. It comes after a year of revelations. The Cougar junior was not exactly unknown coming into the season. He had finished 6th at NCAAs last year with a PR 8:22.56 in his first year back from a pandemic-lengthened church mission.

In his cross country season last fall — his first since high school — he placed 12th in the West Coast Conference and then 22nd in the ultra-fast Mountain Regional. Indoors he set PRs of 3:59.65 and 7:55.44, then earned All-America honors with his 2:56.67 distance medley leadoff for an 8th-place BYU squad.

All good stuff, but none of that particularly scared his steeple rivals. Then, in early May, he ran his third steeple of the year at the Track Fest at Mt. SAC. He trounced a field that included two past Olympic finalists, his winning time of 8:17.62 making him the No. 2 collegian ever and the No. 1 American collegian.

By the time the NCAA Championships rolled around, Montana State’s Duncan Hamilton had run a faster time and had been given the nod as favorite. The race played out just that way until Rooks made a strong move with 600 left, one that ultimately gave him a 40m margin at the finish.

“I went into the race expecting Duncan and a few other guys to just be right there at a lap to go,” he says. “But at the same time, I knew that Duncan and me were probably better than everybody else.

“I was prepared for the race to be how it played out. With my coaches, we talked about how the race might go slow for the first half and then somebody might take it with 4 laps to go and start ramping it up. It also could have been hard from the gun. I was ready for either scenario and I was ready to respond when moves happened. In that race, I had a mindset of, when people made different moves, it was like, ‘OK, it’s happening now,’ rather than, ‘Oh, I wasn’t expecting that.’”

The victories in both nationals have made Rooks the first to pull off the NCAA-USATF double since Ohio State’s Mark Croghan in ’91. Not a bad showing for the young man from College Place, Washington, a town of fewer than 10,000 residents in arid southeast Washington, just a couple of miles north of the Oregon line.

In College Place, Rooks took to running because his dad had been a solid runner and because he had been noticed in PE class as well as other sports for his speed. By the time of his junior year, he had won the Washington 1A 1600 crown. As a senior, he won the State XC title a second time. In track, though he improved to 1:53.44 and 4:11.40y, he missed State with a bad hamstring injury.

Under the tutelage of Ed Eyestone in Provo, Rooks improved quickly in ’19, running a PR 8:36.08 at the West Regional steeple before placing 11th in his first NCAA final (another race in which the winner overcame a fall). That season he also had his first experience with crashing, running 8:47.15 at Stanford’s Payton Jordan meet after a fall with a lap and a half to go. “I ran close to a personal best with one shoe falling off,” he says.

Then came his Mormon mission, which took him to Uganda. After about 9 months of work there, the COVID pandemic struck and he was called home and reassigned to Orem, Utah. Then eventually he was allowed to return to Uganda to finish out.

He says running was not a priority at the time, but admits, “I think in the back of your mind, that’s a thought: ‘Am I going to be able to get back to where I was?’ I wasn’t able to do a lot of running. I was in good enough shape that when I was in Orem, I went out to the track to see how fast I could go and I think I ran like a 4:55 mile. So yeah, I got out of shape. I gained 25lb in the first 9 months.

“I have had teammates that have been gone for 2 years and were able to get it back. And I had had that success my freshman year. The one thing I trusted was that my body would remember where it was at. I was able to get back into shape relatively soon. I wouldn’t have had as much confidence to get back into shape if I just left immediately after high school.”

After Rooks broke the BYU school record of venerable Henry Marsh in May, he got a chance to talk to the 4-time Olympian, whose PR of 8:09.17 still sits at No. 5 on the U.S. all-time list, 38 years after it broke the American Record.

“One thing [Marsh] said,” Rooks remembers, “is that he was very good at internally knowing where he was at and what pace he was running, and he just ran his pace and didn’t worry about what everyone else was doing. He knew that where he was running was where he needed to be.

“That’s something that I took to heart. That helped me getting up when I fell. I had to be intently focused on running just within myself, not worried about the guys ahead. Just focused on my internal pace. That’s why when I fell, Henry Marsh’s name popped into my head.”

Now, Rooks looks ahead to Budapest. He has no other races on his schedule. Then there’s his post-Worlds decisions.

“Right now, I’m planning to return to BYU. I am exploring other options because I feel it’s smart to know what my options are. But currently, I’m going to be back for cross country season. We’ll have a really good team this year and I’m excited to see what we can do in the NCAA.”