How event change made BYU's James Corrigan latest star of 'Steeplechase U'

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PROVO — James Corrigan had already failed to qualify once when he was a freshman running the 5,000-meter race at the NCAA west preliminaries by an agonizingly close half-second, and he certainly didn't want history to repeat itself.

While racing as one of the favorites in last week's west preliminary heats of the 3,000-meter steeplechase, the sophomore with the sixth-best time in the nation marginally kept that thought in the back of his mind.

But as nervous as he felt while approaching the starting line, most of those nerves simply melted away as he heard the familiar gun go off.

Suddenly, there was nobody on the track but Corrigan, and his previous training took over as he sailed to a first-place finish in his heat in a time of 8 minutes, 38.81 seconds.

"I felt very confident racing alongside those guys. It honestly felt a lot better than I expected," he told about a week after. "With about 800 (meters) to go, I was feeling good — ready to rip. It wasn't the time for that, with nationals a week later. So I just got my position and then shut it down."

The 5-foot-9 sophomore from Eagle Rock High — who finished as a cross country All American in the fall and a Big 12 track champion a year after returning from a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Madagascar and Tempe, Arizona — wasn't the only BYU steeplechaser to qualify for the NCAA outdoor track and field championships June 5-8 in Eugene, Oregon.

Among the 16 athletes from BYU headed to Track Town, USA, are Wyatt Haughton, a true freshman from Fairway, Kansas, who qualified in the steeplechase with a time of 8:47.89.

Haughton is the youngest individual male national qualifier from BYU in a decade. Freshman Taylor Lovell also qualified in the women's 3,000-meter steeplechase, when the seventh-best women's steeplechaser in program history posted a time of 10:01.03 to punch her ticket to Eugene.

"I feel extremely blessed and happy to qualify for nationals," Haughton said. "There were a bunch of things during the race that I could have done differently or better to make it not as close for the spot. But I'm excited to apply those things I've learned at nationals and run better."

Corrigan knows the history of BYU, now lovingly referred to in the track and field community as "Steeplechase U." after producing stars from four-time U.S. Olympian Henry Marsh to Kenneth Rooks and Courtney Wayment, more recently.

The sophomore joked that maybe someday, when he's one of those BYU alumni, he'll organize regularly barbecues and reunions of the Cougar steeplechase family. Right now, those don't exist — or at least, he hasn't been invited.

But he's well aware of what it means to be the next in line in the fraternity of the BYU steeplechase, a 3,000-meter event that combines distance, sprints and hurdling over a barrier and a small water pit located at the end of a track.

Corrigan compares the event more to cross country than another track and field event, which might help explain the performance of the event of a BYU program with four individual national titles and an NCAA Division I team championship as recently as 2019.

"There's an inherent pressure with being a BYU athlete in every single event," Corrigan said. "I feel like I've gotten used to it, where I don't think about it too much now. But entering as a freshman, I was like, holy smokes; no matter what event I go into, I'm going to have this pressure to carry the torch."

The mechanical engineering major first came to BYU as a distance runner, with a personal-best time of 9:13.80 in the 3,200 meter and CIF Los Angeles city section championships in both cross country and the 3200 in 2018 and 2019 in high school.

He added the 5,000-meter run as a freshman last year. But after finishing 14th at the NCAA west regionals, Corrigan fell short of a national championship berth by a half second.

Corrigan notes how he adjusted his training regime in the year-long lead-up to this year's regional, both mentally and physically. He came in more fit to Fayetteville, Arkansas — but added a mental game of motivation to his tall task of securing a bid.

"It was big for me in the first weeks of our training block for outdoor season, and I was thinking about it a lot. But I thought of it more optimistically; I didn't think I would be that close.

"If I was that close to qualifying in a very competitive year, I felt like this year I could be in contention to not only make it but do even greater things. It definitely served as half-bittersweet motivation, with the other side being, I'm going to go kill it."


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