RRW: Worth the Wait: Bailey Roth Breaks 35-Year-Old USA H.S. Steeplechase Record

By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2014 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
July 25, 2014

EUGENE, OREGON — When it comes to records, 35 years is a pretty darn long time. Rewind the clock back three and a half decades and the calendar reads 1979. Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” was atop the music charts, a gallon of gasoline cost 90 cents, and Bill Rodgers was Boston Marathon champion (his third of four wins).

In 1979, Jeff Hess was a high school student-athlete attending South Eugene High School, just over a mile from historic Hayward Field here. On the oval Hess was a star, timing 8:50.1 for the 3000m steeplechase. The mark was an American high school record, one that would stand to see six Presidents of the United States occupy the White House.

This morning, on a picturesque day for track and field, Hess’s national high school record fell, broken by Colorado’s Bailey Roth. En route to finishing seventh and qualifying for Sunday’s IAAF World Junior Championships final, Roth stopped the clock in 8:48.60.

“I knew I was capable of doing it. I was happy about the time,” said Roth, sporting a bright red USA vest. “But personally I just really wanted to catch those guys ahead of me.”

Breaking national prep records isn’t anything new for Roth. At New Balance Nationals Outdoor in June, he set his first high school record, clocking 5:41.67 for the rarely run 2000m steeplechase.

Speaking with Roth, it is clear records don’t mean much to the 18-year-old. His competitive spirit is what shines bright, a let’s-do-it-and-give-it-hell persona emanating from his thin frame.

On his right wrist Roth wears a black, red, and green Kenyan themed bracelet. Entering today’s race, his main concern was to advance on to Sunday’s final, getting one more chance to lace up his racing spikes and take on the dominant Kenyans, champions of the last 13 World Junior Championships gold medals in the discipline.

“I wanted to make the final for sure. I deserve a spot in the final and it’s definitely not given, I had to go out there and earn it,” he said.

Roth’s national high school record is all the more impressive considering this was only his second 3000m steeplechase ever. In his first –at the USA Junior Championships on July 6– Roth claimed victory in 9:03.92 despite tripping and falling to the track.

“Being able to get over them clean [today] was definitely good for me. And so being able to finish out no falling or anything, it was a lot better than last time,” he said.

Since Colorado does not contest the steeplechase in high school competitions, Roth’s opportunities in the event are few and far between. His biggest steeplechase before today was a 2000m race at the IAAF World Youth Championships last year in Donetsk, Ukraine. Roth used that experience –where he finished seventh– to help calm him prior to today’s race.

“The experience that I had last year was super comforting coming into this because this will be my second time competing against the big guys,” he said. “It helped me with my confidence coming in, not to be too scared or nervous. But definitely I’m more comfortable now at this stage.”

Touted as one of America’s next best steeplechasers, Roth is taking his talents to the University of Arizona next fall, where he’ll be coached by James Li. Li, highly regarded in the distance running community, has guided such athletes as Bernard Lagat, Stephen Sambu, and Lawi Lalang. But before he moves to Tucson and begins his Wildcat career, Roth has work to do.

No American has ever medaled in the discipline at these championships. Though it may be a long shot, Roth will give his best Sunday to try and keep the hardware in his home country.

“I got to see what I can do about getting some rest, ice baths, and I’ll be ready for the final,” he said with a confident smile.

On his side will be a vocal and enthusiastic Hayward Field crowd. On Thursday, the home fans cheered Mary Cain to an historic gold in the 3000 meters, and would love to see another American distance runner claim a spot on the podium.

“It’s really special to me,” Roth said, speaking in a meaningful tone. “You know, this atmosphere is so great, especially being that this is on our home soil. It is an awesome feeling coming across. All the way around the track I could hear people yelling my name and ‘USA! USA!’ We have a lot of pride here and I’m just proud to represent.”