Coming into the 16th IAAF World Championships in London, Kenya’s Conseslus Kipruto was worried. The 2016 Rio Olympic steeplechase champion was nursing an injured right ankle and hadn’t finished a race since June 24 when he won the Kenyan Trials in Nairobi.
But the 22-year-old athlete won his preliminary heat here in a solid 8:23.80, and coming into the 3000m steeplechase final he told himself that no matter what, he was still the Olympic champion, still the man to beat.
“I used my plans well, and last night for morale I told myself, ‘I am Olympic champion and that others must break me,” he told IAAF interviewers.
Kipruto kept his plan simple. He would shadow the tall American Evan Jager, a man he knows well and the rival he respected most, and move when the time was right. He had to be patient.
“There are others who are strong but I used my own plans,” he said. “I knew if the race was around 8:10 that I was going to win.”
The opening pace was slow, just 2:51.81 for the first 1000 meters. Jager, who ran a world-leading 8:01.29 in Monaco last month, knew that he had to pick things up. He didn’t want the race to come down to a mass sprint.
“I thought it was going to go a little slow for the first K,” Jager told reporters. “If that happened, we thought it was best, for me, to try to get rid of guys by going hard from three or four laps to go. Basically, you make it a strength race by going a little bit further out.”
At the water jump just before four laps to go, Jager gamely bounded to the lead, shadowed by Kipruto and his two Kenyan teammates, four-time world champion Ezekiel Kemboi and Jairus Birech. Morocco’s Soufiane Elbakkali also stayed with the leaders. For three more laps, Jager led the way, shedding everyone but Kipruto, Elbakkali and Kemboi by the bell. Kemboi would soon fall off the pace, too.
“I just wanted to make it hard,” Jager explained. “It’s tough, it’s hard to run over half the race from the lead.”
Going down the backstretch, Kipruto leaped to the lead with one lethal move. Both Jager and Elbakkali gave chase, but Kipruto continued to pull away, taking the final water jump first and having plenty of daylight on his challengers in the final 120 meters of the steeplechase. Looking at the crowd, beating his fist against his racing uniform, and finally punching the air, he crossed the line in 8:14.12 with his first world title. He had been second at these championships in both 2013 in Moscow and 2015 in Beijing.
“I’m happy to be world champion [in the steeplecahse],” he declared. “Last year I became Olympic champion and this year to be world champion was my hope.”
Elbakkali went past Jager before the final water jump and was a clear second in 8:14.49. Jager had to hustle in the final 30 meters to stay ahead of a hard-charging Mahiedine Mekhissi of France, but the American was able to claim bronze in 8:15.53 to the Frenchman’s 8:15.80.
“I peaked up at the big screen just to be safe,” Jager recalled when asked about when he realized that his bronze medal might be in jeopardy. He continued, “I looked back and I was like, oh my gosh, I hope I have enough left. He always has a big last kick.”
Kemboi, 35, who will likely retire after tonight’s race, faded to 11th in 8:29.38. Jager’s USA teammate, Stanley Kebenei, finished fifth in 8:21.09 in his first IAAF World Championships.
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