Kenneth Rooks’ remarkable comeback — after falling — to win the 3,000-meter steeplechase crown at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon, on July 8 has thrust him into the national spotlight.
Since taking the ribbon at the finish line, the runner from Brigham Young University has been widely featured in headlines and on social media. Everyone wants to acknowledge his accomplishment, even as he tries to stay low key by spending time with his family.
“It seems like everybody is excited for me and telling me congratulations, even people I don’t know who just walk up to me,” Rooks said. “That’s been fun.”
What has perhaps meant the most to Rooks are those who have thanked him for not giving up after he fell. His determination to keep running after tumbling over the barrier and rolling twice early in the race has inspired many, including one mother who told Rooks, “Thank you for being such a good example to my kids.”
“That was special,” Rooks said. “I definitely didn’t think going into the weekend that my performance would turn into a fireside talk full of gospel analogies.”
Rooks reflected on his memorable race, the fall, the comeback and how being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ has blessed his life, in a recent interview with the Church News.
Kenneth Rooks relives the race
How did Rooks celebrate his big victory?
By reliving it again and again. Days later, the only topic that anyone in Rooks’ circle — coaches, family and friends — has wanted to talk about is his steeplechase race.
“Rewatching it, hearing everyone’s different experiences, how they felt, their reactions, that’s more or less how I think I have celebrated,” he said.
Looking back, Rooks felt he was well prepared physically and mentally. He fell while running in practice a few weeks ago and was able to formulate a strategy if he fell. Most importantly, he wanted to give his best effort.
“It was a good reminder that I needed to stay focused in the race,” he said. “It also made me think about what if something happens and I end up going down? If I fell, I wanted to make sure I got up and slowly worked my way back to the pack to see what I could do. I didn’t want that to happen, but it did happen. It was easier to make that decision because I already had that plan in mind.”
The fall in the steeplechase
Rooks said he felt good about his chances to win going into the race, which includes several barriers and water jumps.
Then two laps in, the runners crowded together as they prepared to hurdle a heavy wooden beam. Rooks almost ran into another runner, then somersaulted over the obstacle and rolled twice on the track as trailing runners did their best to avoid stepping on him. Fortunately, he didn’t get “spiked” by their shoes.
Rooks said the fall wasn’t initially painful, thanks to the adrenaline rush of the competition. But he’s feeling it now. He has a bruise on his right hip where he landed and another on his right tricep. There are also other aches and pains, but winning has helped remedy that.
“I was very fortunate and blessed,” he said.
How Rooks came from behind
On his feet and arms pumping again, Rooks told himself he needed to go into Henry Marsh mode.
Marsh, a former BYU athlete and four-time Olympian, was famous for running at the back of the pack and working his way into the lead late in the race.
“His name popped into my head,” Rooks said. “He was a BYU steeplechase great. He would be way out of it, and then he would come back and be in contention, and he won a lot of titles.”
Remaining patient and calm and realizing he wasn’t hurt also helped Rooks to gradually rejoin the pack near the end of the 7.5-lap race. He’s had bad races in the past when he wasn’t totally focused, so he was surprised with how well he was able to execute his Marsh strategy.
Rooks climbed into second place, then fell back to fourth as fatigue was setting on the last lap. With a good jump on the last barrier and the roar of the crowd, Rooks found a final burst of energy that carried him across the finish line in first place.
“I was definitely in shock,” he said. “That’s probably why I looked like I was yelling so much at the end, crossing that finish line. I was just ecstatic that I had actually come back and won.”
Going into the race, Ed Eyestone, BYU’s director of track and field, thought Rooks had an “excellent chance of doing well” and even winning. His “heart fell” when Rooks went down. The grit with which he continued running will not soon be forgotten.
“At this level of competition, to come back from five seconds behind, and to see him bounce up, to be smart in not just one lap, but three laps, obviously it was a performance for the ages,” Eyestone said. “To see him barrel through and come around the last turn with a perfect last jump was inspiring to a whole new level. It was a privilege to witness it in person and to see Kenny have so much success.”
Rooks reflects on gospel blessings
Rooks attributed part of his running success to living the Word of Wisdom, the health code of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The Word of Wisdom counsels Latter-day Saints to refrain from use of alcohol, tobacco, coffee, drugs and other harmful substances.
“It’s a blessing,” he said.
Additionally, living the gospel of Jesus Christ has taught and prepared Rooks to face life’s adversities and trials, even in races. He also learned valuable lessons about relying on the Lord as a missionary in the East African nation of Uganda and in Orem, Utah.
“That’s part of life,” he said. “We experience it, then we learn, and the gospel helps us to repent, change and get better. I think having a testimony of Jesus Christ and being able to have the gospel is a big part of my life. It has helped me to focus on the right things and the good things.”
Preparing for the world championships
What’s next for Rooks? He is expected to be invited to represent the U.S. in the world championships in Budapest, Hungary, next month.
It’s going to be a bigger stage with greater competition, but the BYU runner, who finished his junior season by winning an NCAA championship, plans to stick with what is working.
“The mindset I’ve had this year going into my races is to be patient and put myself into positions to succeed,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. I’m excited. I will strive to give it my best effort and take advantage of the opportunities I’ve been given. It’s an amazing opportunity ... and I know the Lord is watching out for me.”