Source: New York Times
By Marc Bloom
When Elizabeth Jackson traded her ballet slippers for racing spikes, she had no idea that her dance skills would enable her to set the pace in erasing the last gender barrier in track and field.
Jackson, a senior on the Brigham Young University track team and a former professional ballet candidate, took up a fledgling women’s event, the 3,000-meter steeplechase, only four years ago. The steeplechase, in which athletes hurdle 35 barriers, including seven over water jumps, in a race of about 1.9 miles, requires dexterity and coordination, rare qualities in distance running.
Women competed in the pole vault and the hammer throw at the Sydney Games last September and have had an Olympic marathon since 1984. But the steeplechase — the only Olympic track-and-field event for men that women have been denied to date — has had an unofficial status for women until this year and was often not scheduled at meets. Men have always had the steeplechase, which originated in England in the 1870’s.
Now Jackson, 23, will be the favorite in her specialty at the N.C.A.A. championships in Eugene, Ore., from today through Saturday. It is the first time the women’s steeplechase will be held in the N.C.A.A. meet, a status that has launched the event as a possible addition to the Olympic program for 2004 in Athens.
While the women’s steeplechase will not be run in this summer’s world track meet in Edmonton, Alberta, the event is under review for the next world outdoor championships in Paris in 2003, a press officer for the International Amateur Athletic Federation in Monte Carlo said. World championship status is needed for Olympic consideration. The event will be held in more than 24 European meets this season, and at the Goodwill Games in Brisbane, Australia, in September.
Jackson hopes to run in Brisbane, where her nimble style would be tested in an Olympic-level field.
”Hurdling is leaping over a bar, and I did that all the time in ballet,” Jackson said. ”Coordination and flexibility from dance help me accelerate through the water jump.”
Jackson, a lithe 5 feet 7 1/2 inches, is so polished in her event that Patrick Shane, Brigham Young’s women’s coach and a steeplechase expert, said, ”Liz has the best water-jump technique of any woman I’ve seen.”
Ballet, which Jackson started at age 6 in Salt Lake City, nurtured her competitive fire. ”I absolutely loved the dance,” she said. By 13, Jackson had reached an elite level and was accepted into a program at the San Francisco Ballet School. Taking summer classes at the school fueled Jackson’s passion, but she decided against ballet life because it would have taken her away from home.
Jackson soon chose track, becoming a high school mile champion in Utah in 1996 and receiving an athletic scholarship to B.Y.U. Shane, who taught the American record-holder Henry Marsh the steeplechase, saw Jackson’s potential. Last year, Jackson won the event at the Olympic trials, setting an American record of 9 minutes 57.20 seconds.
The steeplechase drew fans’ attention and was compared with the women’s pole vault, now a marquee event. In a recent Runner’s World magazine Web site poll, 80 percent of respondents answered ”yes” to the question: ”Can the women’s steeplechase become as exciting as the women’s pole vault?”
The crux of the steeplechase is the water jump, 12 feet long for men and recommended by the I.A.A.F. to be about 10 1/2 feet for women. Competitors need power and timing to step on the hurdle with one foot and drive themselves forward and land at the water’s edge on the opposite foot. ”The chance for disaster coupled with aesthetic beauty makes the steeple popular,” Shane said.
The biggest hurdle for women may be the cost of new equipment. Women’s barriers, 30 inches high compared with 36 inches for men, have led manufacturers to create adjustable barriers costing as much as $10,000 for a set of five.
At B.Y.U., Jackson has eight teammates in the steeplechase, and the Cougars are expected to dominate the event in the N.C.A.A. meet. This season, the women’s steeplechase is scheduled at most collegiate conference meets and in a seven-meet USA Track & Field steeplechase tour capped by the national championships June 21-24 in Eugene. On May 18 at the Mountain West Conference meet, Jackson ran a 9:55.53 to break her American record.
At the N.C.A.A.’s, Jackson could be challenged by Arkansas’ Lilli Kleinmann, the Penn Relays winner in 10:01.52; Kleinmann took up the event this spring. ”I’ve been waiting 10 years for the steeple,” Kleinmann said. Both Jackson and Kleinmann could threaten the women’s world record of 9:43.64 set last year by Cristina Iloc-Casandra of Romania.
Just as women have cleared the 15-foot barrier in the pole vault, Shane said women would be steeplechasing in 9 minutes before long.
More important, women finally have a chance to thrive on the steeplechase’s appeal. ”It’s more fun,” Jackson said, ”to run over something than to run only in circles.”