“Running hurts,” says BYU steeplechaser Kenneth Rooks (’24). And nothing’s more painful—or nerve-wracking—than race day. To tame the jitters some racers amp up with music and affirmations. Rooks takes a different approach: seeking calmness and clarity, he reads scripture and prays for perspective. Rooks trains his focus on the present—not the finish line, but the next lap, next hurdle, next step.
After making the NCAA steeplechase finals as a true freshman in 2019 and placing sixth after his mission in 2022, Rooks hit his stride during the 2022–23 indoor and outdoor track seasons. He broke the 4-minute mile indoors; he nabbed the NCAA outdoor steeplechase title months after shocking a field of pros by placing first at the Sound Running Track Festival, shattering a longstanding BYU record.
“I’m competitive, but at the end of the day, I want my mindset to be in the place where I’m able to push myself, regardless of where I place,” Rooks says.
His mental game was tested at the USA national championships in July. Just two laps in, as the pack approached a hurdle, a runner stumbled and threw off Rooks’s stride. He toppled over the hurdle, rolling twice on the track as other runners jumped over him. “I’m going to just get up and see how many people I can catch,” Rooks thought. He took them on one by one.
“I had help from the Lord,” Rooks remembers. “I don’t think that it was just me, myself, that helped me stay present. That’s something I had been working on, and this race was a culmination of that.”
Rooks eventually caught the leaders. After a boost off the final water jump, he pulled into the lead in the straightaway, punching the air as he finished first.
“It’s one of those stories we can all relate to,” says Coach Edward D. Eyestone (BS ’85, MS ’90). “The metaphorical falling and then getting up and doing the best we can. In his case, it was good enough to come back for an improbable win against a strong field. It was inspiring to say the least.”
The win qualified Rooks for the world championships in Budapest, Hungry, where he placed 10th. It also sparked sponsorship opportunities and hopes for the Olympic trials next summer. But first he decided to return to BYU for the fall cross-country season.
Rooks will always remember his nationals win: “I learned that where I’m at in the moment doesn’t necessarily determine where I’m going to end up. That race helped me to have hope in my life in responding to challenges.”
8:16.78: The time Kenneth Rooks hit in the steeplechase at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships—setting a PR and finishing first, despite falling 800 meters into the race.
1: The BYU men’s track and field and cross country teams’ place in the 2023 NCAA Division 1 Men’s Program of the Year rankings. The honor, notes track-and-field director Ed Eyestone, identifies BYU as a “well-rounded, balanced program.”
46 Years: How long Olympian Henry D. Marsh (’78) held the BYU steeplechase record of 8:21.60. In May Rooks blazed past it by four seconds. Rooks recalls looking at Marsh’s name atop the record board and thinking, “‘Wow, that’s incredible he was able to run that fast.’ To break his school record was a special moment.”