Latter-day Saint Kenneth Rooks became Brigham Young University’s first male individual to win a national championship in four years when he pulled away from Montana State’s Duncan Hamilton in the final lap of the steeplechase race at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Austin, Texas, on Friday, June 9.
The junior from Walla Walla, Washington, crossed the finish line with a time of 8:26.17, six seconds ahead of Hamilton. His victory also lifted the 14th-ranked BYU men’s track and field team to a 10th-place overall finish at the national outdoor competition.
After the race, a reporter asked Rooks how he dealt with running in the Texas heat and humidity. Rooks didn’t think it was as hot as the last time he raced there in 2019, but he felt well prepared and had the added experience of living in Uganda as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“That might have helped a little bit too,” Rooks said.
Rooks served most of his mission in Kampala, Uganda, and for a short time in Orem, Utah, during onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was wonderful,” Rooks said of his mission. “I got to spend some time out there teaching other people about Jesus Christ and serving them. The people of Uganda are really loving.”
The steeplechase is a 3,000-meter race that includes obstacles, such as hurdles and a water pit. On May 6, Rooks became the fastest American collegiate athlete to run the steeplechase, at 8:17.62. Less than a month later, on May 26, Hamilton set a record with 8:16.23 at the NCAA West Preliminaries.
“I respect Duncan Hamilton,” Rooks said. “Him breaking the record got me excited to race against him here at nationals. He’s really good. Thankfully today was my day.”
During Friday’s race, Rooks maintained a steady pace to position himself near the middle of the pack until the final laps, when he was able to maneuver ahead of the competition.
“I wanted to put myself in the middle or close to the front, be patient and ready when people started to push at the mile,” Rooks said. “When that happened, I was ready to respond. With 600 meters to go, I got lots of speed to go for it at that point.”
Rooks was greeted near the finish line with a hug from his coach, Ed Eyestone, who himself won national titles — in the 5,000- and 10,000-meter runs — in Austin, Texas, in 1985.
“Kenneth rose up to the challenge,” Eyestone said. “Near the end, he was bold and used his momentum to get the lead. The faster Kenneth went over the barriers, the more smooth his performance was. He hit that last barrier perfect before the last water jump put it away. To see him put it all together and then execute that plan to perfection really is rewarding.”
With Rooks’ title, BYU is the first school in NCAA Division I history to win back-to-back men’s and women’s steeplechase titles. Fellow Latter-day Saint Courtney Wayment won the women’s individual championship last year.
Rooks is the first BYU men’s athlete to claim an individual title since Clayton Young in 2019.
Read more about Rooks’ victory and BYU men’s track and field team and its success at the NCAA championships at BYUCougars.com.