Olympic family's group hug says it all

  • At Olympic silver medal winner Evan Jager's suggestion, his family comes together for a group hug.

    At Olympic silver medal winner Evan Jager's suggestion, his family comes together for a group hug. COURTESY OF JOEL JAGER

  • A tired, but happy Joel and Cathy Jager fly home from the Olympics to their home in Algonquin.

    A tired, but happy Joel and Cathy Jager fly home from the Olympics to their home in Algonquin. COURTESY OF JOEL JAGER

  • From left, Joel Jager, Sofia Hellberg-Jonsen, Evan Jager, Cathy Jager, Mallory Jager and Emma Ulrika Hellberg.

    From left, Joel Jager, Sofia Hellberg-Jonsen, Evan Jager, Cathy Jager, Mallory Jager and Emma Ulrika Hellberg. COURTESY OF JOEL JAGER

 
 
Updated 8/28/2016 8:54 PM

It was the group hug that got to me.

While the Jager kids were growing up, a group hug was a weekly family ritual. Parents Cathy and Joel encouraged it, of course, but this time it was Evan's idea.

 

The setting was Rio de Janeiro, not long after Evan had become the first American since 1952 to capture a silver Olympic medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

So, immediate and extended family members -- Cathy, Joel, Evan, his fiancee Sofia Hellberg-Jonsen, sister Mallory and Sofia's mom Emma Ulrika Hellberg -- are pictured on Joel's Facebook page, huddled around the wheelchair Joel needs for longer distances. (He had polio as a child.)

The group hug at the Olympic Village and that Evan suggested it, "meant the world to me," Cathy said. "It didn't even occur to me to do that."

And that photo tells you all you need to know about this family, residents of Algonquin for almost 30 years, and its love for one another.

Soccer since 4

Cathy and Joel were the quintessential soccer parents, starting when Evan took up the sport at age 4. By high school, he had to decide between that and cross-country. He chose the latter, and obviously was very good at it.

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But Mallory became involved in competitive cheerleading. So the Jagers did what all good suburban parents do: They attended both children's events, often splitting apart to do so.

"We've been doing this for 23 years," Cathy said, acknowledging that the venue has been noteworthy of late: Four years ago it was London for Evan's first Olympic effort, and now, Rio.

Proud parents

The Jagers are proud of their son's Olympic achievement, but truth be told, they're more proud of their son, the person.

"I'm proud of who he is, not to mention what he's done," Cathy says, noting that Evan drew praise from his teachers and, today, from the Kenyans, who were his fiercest -- some thought unbeatable -- rivals in the steeplechase.

Joel is quick to give the lion's share of credit to his wife for rearing two great kids. She's been a stay-at-home mom since Mallory's birth. "She was with them 24/7, and instilled at lot of high-quality characteristics" he says. She even encouraged Evan to take public speaking classes "so he'd be to express himself thoughtfully." In anticipation of Olympic interviews seen across the world, perhaps?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

No, Joel chuckles, "I don't think we ever anticipated how great he was going to be."

Public speaking

Evan does express himself well. He's confident, but hasn't lost his humility -- nor his unbridled joy for what he does.

In May, he shared his thoughts with staff writer Madhu Krishnamurthy.

"I'm pretty confident at this point," he told Madhu of his upcoming Olympic medal quest. "I'm in a completely different place than I was the last time in 2012 for the Olympic trials. While I was fit, there was still so much about the steeplechase that I didn't know. Now, I feel like much more of a veteran of the event."

And now for the joy part: "Medaling at the Olympics would be the absolute best thing that could happen to me," he said in May. "Just to be at this level and being competitive on the world stage ... it's been incredible. I wouldn't want to be doing anything different in my life. I am literally living out my dreams, so I'm having a ton of fun."

We've had a ton of fun covering Evan, from writing about his first Olympic experience, when he finished sixth in the London Games four years ago, to his induction into the Jacobs High School Hall of Fame in 2013. But when he captured silver in Rio, we pulled out the stops: The photo of Evan, draped in the American flag, ran as our main shot on the front page. The competition picture of Evan was the dominant shot on our sports front.

Beyond the Olympics

The most recent American steeplechase medal, of any kind, came in 1984. Cathy and Joel, though, shared their son's confidence heading into the Rio games: They expected Evan to medal.

"I had pretty high hopes," Joel said. "Evan was extremely confident going into this thing; he had good strength and fitness and he had an expectation he'd be on the podium."

And while the 2020 Olympics might be far off, there's no reason to think Evan can't medal again. Joel notes there are still two world championships between now and then to see how Evan measures up.

More immediately, he has two races to run early next month, a 5K in Zurich and another steeplechase in Brussels.

For the Jagers, it's easing back into the daily routine; both have returned to work, though they note the congratulations are still pouring in, and they've been busy reconnecting with friends. They also continue to crank out "Team Evan" T-shirts. The shirts aren't part of a fundraising effort or anything like that: It's just more family and friends bonding and team-building thing.

A confession

Honestly, I didn't have my head in the Olympic game this year. Despite that feature story by one of my staffers (I was on vacation when it was written), I was only vaguely aware we had a suburban Olympic hero in the waiting. But Cathy Jager and my wife Margaret went to high school together and are Facebook friends. As we'd watch the Olympics, Margaret was only too happy to share the Jager family posts.

And then came that group hug.

jdavis@dailyherald.com

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