Last Man Standing: Anthony Rotich Successfully Defends His Steeplechase Crown

June 14, 2014

UTEP junior Anthony Rotich successfully defended his steeplechase title today at the 2014 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships at Hayward Field by emerging as the last man standing after a great battle with Arkansas’ junior Stanley Kebenei. 

Rotich and Kebenei, who were clear of the field for the final 2.25 laps, waged a fantastic duel over the final 200 meters during which both men pushed themselves to the absolute limit. Rotich emerged the victor after Kebenei went down hard on the final barrier. That was a fortuitous break for the Rotich, who in addition to his steeplechase title last year also won the indoor mile title, as Rotich was totally out of energy himself. In a mad sprint for the line, Rotich actually stepped on the last hurdle as he realized he was so spent he couldn’t hurdle it. Normally a slow-down like that on the last barrier in a tight contest would end in defeat, but not when your competitor goes down.

Rotich won in 8:32.21 to Kebenei’s 8:35.27. Dane Ole Hesselbjerg of Eastern Kentucky was the best of the rest in 8:38.75 as Michigan sophomore Mason Ferlic garnered top American honors in fourth in 8:39.84.

The Race

After a 38-second segment to get to the the starting line, the first four laps were all run in the 68-69 second range before the real racing took place over the final 3 laps. Rotich ran the third-to-last and second-to-last lap in the 66s as it became a  two person battle for individual glory.

On the backs-tretch of the final lap, Kebenei tried to go past Rotich. He moved slightly ahead on the outside shoulder of Rotich just before entering the final turn, but was unable to get far enough ahead to be able to move back to the inside as Rotich sped up and valiantly tried to hold Kebenei off. Both men ran towards the final water jump side by side in a full-out sprint. Both men had the same idea – try to save time by hurdling the water jump without touching the barrier.

They both pulled that off and entered the homestretch still separated by the narrowest of margins. As they approached the final barrier, Rotich realized he was out of gas and put his foot on the barrier to help himself get over. Kebenei tried to jump over and sprint to glory, but he slammed into the barrier and Rotich was able to cruise to the line for victory.

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Results, quick thoughts and post-race interviews appear below.

Anthony Rotich Leads Anthony Rotich Leads

Quick Thought #1: Déjà vu – Rotich wins after his #1 challenger bites it during the final 200.

The similarities between this year’s race and last year’s are eery. Last year, Rotich entered the race as the favorite and had the lead on the final lap but Texas A&M’s Henry Lelei was gaining a lot of ground entering the final water jump. However, Lelei saw his dreams of victory end when he bit it on that jump. Today, Kebenei likely would have had victory had he cleared the last barrier but it wasn’t to be.

In his post-race interview, Rotich talked a lot about how much harder the pace was getting at the end and that he felt that’s why his “friend” Kebenei fell on the last barrier. He also explained that the changing pace and them kicking so hard contributed to his sloppier hurdle execution with him doing a two-foot landing in some water jumps and foot planting the last barrier.

Speaking on working so hard to hold Kebenei off when he tried to pass on the final turn Rotich said, “My coach normally tells me run through the finish line. Even if you have no more energy, just run to the finish line; just fight. I realized that by the time I was fighting more, my friend (Kebenei) was also fighting.”

Quick Thought #2: Might Kebenei be on the 2016 or 2020 US Olympic Team?

After the race we caught up with Arkansas’ Kebenei. He said that when he pulled up alongside Rotich with 200 meters remaining he was convinced he was going to go on to victory. He said on Friday night that he watched clips of the 2004 Olympic final and that he was certain the way to get victory was to hurdle the last water jump.

“When were were jumping the last water (jump), I was like, ‘I’ve got this. I’m going to win this.’ My mind was like , ‘I’m winning this. There is no way I  can lose this.’ So when I went down I was like (wondering) should I just stand up and watch him win or just finish (the race) up, and I was like, ‘I need to finish up.’

“I feel great (about being second) even though I wasn’t coming here for second. I was coming to win but things happen and it was his day so I congratulate him,” said Kebenei.

In our post-race interview with Kebenei, he revealed that he recently enrolled in the US Army, but will still return to race for Arkansas next year. Being in the Army leads to an accelerated path to citizenship so it will be interesting to see if Kebenei ends up being on the US Olympic Team in 2016 or 2020. Kebenei isn’t joining the WCAP program and said that’s because he wants to be able to race professionally in Europe down the road.

Quick Thought #3: Michigan’s Mason Ferlic was very happy to be the top American in fourth.

The sophomore, who last year just missed making the final as a freshman was in fourth throughout the final four laps.

“It was a good race,” said Ferlic. “I wish I had a little more edge on the last 800 as Ole was right there (in third) and I couldn’t quite close the gap.”

As for the future, Ferlic says he’s going to race USAs in a couple of weeks.

“I’m still feeling ready to go. I’d love to run another PR,” said Ferlic who ran his 8:38.74 pb at Regionals. “I feel like the fitness is still there.”

Looking further ahead, sources have told that Ferlic’s coach Alex Gibby will be out as men’s distance coach at Michigan after NCAAs. Ferlic only became aware of this fact when we asked him after his prelim who was coaching him here at NCAAs.

We talked off camera before filming the interview with Ferlic about this and said we were sorry he had to learn about it from us.

Quick Thought #4: Oregon’s Tanguay Pepiot was okay with his 6th place finish, but feels like he can do better.

Pepiot thinks he needs to work on his kick which left him unable to “go” the last 500m. He said with a good kick he thinks he could have been 3rd. Looking ahead to the summer, he’s going to be racing at the French National Championships in four weeks.

Quick Thought #5: John Prizzi Finishes 8th And Gets The First NCAA Point For New Hampshire In 24-Years

Prizzi said when “the NAU kid” Caleb Hoover came flying past him at the end he knew he was in 8th and in the last 1st team All-American position. On this thoughts at the end he said, “I knew ‘I can’t let anyone else pass me. I’m not going to let it happen the final 75.’ So I just dropped my head, just went for it, and came up happy.” This was a great year for Prizzi who came into 2014 only with an 8:59.99 PR. Now he has an 8:42.20 and is an All-American.

*NCAA Photo Gallery

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