Brigham Young University’s Kenneth Rooks competes in the 2022 NCAA Track & Field Championships. On May 6, 2023, the returned missionary broke a 46-year-old school record in the steeplechase with a historic win at the Sound Running Track Fest in Walnut, California. (Photo courtesy of BYU Photo)
Seemingly ‘unbreakable’ steeplechase record shattered by BYU’s Kenneth Rooks
Returned missionary claims historic win in grueling steeplechase race that featured former Olympians and professional athletes.
By Jason Swensen
10 May 2023
Sports are replete with legendary milestones and records that have long been deemed “unbreakable.”
Major League Baseball’s Cal Ripken Jr. played in 2,632 consecutive games. Joe DiMaggio collected a hit in 56 straight games. Neither record will ever be broken.
Meanwhile, Wilt Chamberlain averaged more than 50 points in an NBA season. Another record that will stand forever.
In the Brigham Young University track & field community, Henry Marsh’s best time in the steeplechase was long counted among such “unbreakable” records. After all, the three-time Olympian had held the school steeplechase record of 8 minutes and 21 seconds since 1977.
Operative word: Had.
On Saturday, May 6, returned missionary Kenneth Rooks broke Marsh’s decades-old record — finishing the steeplechase race at the Sound Running Track Fest in Walnut, California, with a blazing time of 8:17:62.
The BYU junior not only shattered his school record (and became the fastest-ever American collegian in the event), he won the steeplechase in a race filled with former Olympians and professional athletes. Rook’s performance snagged the attention of the U.S. track and field community, earning him the USTFCCCA Men’s National of the Week Award.
Ed Eyestone, BYU’s director of track and field, said his athlete’s record-setting race was one of historic proportions. “Watching it unfold was just one of those goose-bump sort of moments.”
The coach marveled at the “patient, cool, calm and collected’ way his All-American bested the seasoned field of competitors to cross the finish line first.
The Cougar ran a “steady, patient race” before challenging former Olympian Hillary Bor with 800-meters to go. Rooks would run the final lap in 59 seconds, breaking the finisher’s tape three seconds ahead of his nearest rival.
Church Ball Magazine caught up with Rooks a few days after his historic race. He had already given multiple media interviews and had watched his steeplechase race on YouTube.
“So I do understand what happened and how big it was,” he said. “But I feel like I’m still taking it in.”
Brigham Young University’s Kenneth Rooks, far right, hurdles over water jump during the steeplechase race at the 2022 NCAA Track & Field Championships in Eugene, Oregon. Rooks is an All-American and school record holder in the steeplechase. (Courtesy of BYU Photo)
Since he began competing at the Church-sponsored school, the Walla Walla, Washington, native has been surrounded by strong steeplechase competitors/teammates. They were well aware of Marsh’s record time. The contemporary crop of Cougars marveled at their predecessor’s 8:21 time.
But Rooks is a gamer — and he knew his steeplechase times were improving since his arrival on campus. “I recognized that I could get better every year — and maybe even [breaking Marsh’s record] was a possibility someday.”
Rooks enjoyed collegiate elite-level success in the steeplechase during his freshman campaign in 2019 — earning second team All-American honors and running the sixth-fastest steeplechase time in school history.
Then he hung up his spikes — at least temporarily.
Missionary labors in East Africa — and in the shadow of the “Y”
In 2019, the Latter-day Saint athlete withdrew from school to answer a call to serve a full-time mission to Kampala, Uganda. The global pandemic later prompted his reassignment to Orem, Utah — just miles away from the BYU campus.
At first glance, missionary work in Uganda and Orem seem polar opposites.
The first Latter-day Saint unit in the East African nation was not organized until 1990. Today, there are still fewer than 20,000 Church members living in Uganda. In his first area in Uganda, Rooks and his companion gathered under a tent with fellow congregants for Sabbath day services.
“Later,” he added, “we got a building.”
Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of Orem residents are reported to be Latter-day Saints.
Demographic differences aside, Rooks' said his fundamental missionary duties — to testify of Christ and share His gospel — were the same in both of his geographical mission assignments.
“I learned that the work of the Lord is the same everywhere in the world,” he said. “There may be different approaches and different strategies — but the work is the same. The gospel is the same. The principles are the same.”
Despite being so close to the university he competed for, “I didn’t feel like I was back in college,” he said. “I felt like I was a missionary. I was focused on my purpose and the things I needed to do.”
The adaptability that serves Rooks as a college athlete was enlisted to fulfill his unconventional mission.
“The Lord is able to bless you and strengthen you as you give it your best effort,” he said. “He's able to help you adapt to different circumstances. He knows where you are at. He’s mindful of you.”
Big events await— including a potential NCAA cross country team title
Now days removed from his record-breaking steeplechase performance, Rooks is already training for fast-approaching future meets. Next month, he will compete in the 2023 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Austin, Texas. He also hopes to race in the U.S. outdoor championships later this summer.
The civil engineering major is also planning to fulfill an engineering internship later this year.
Looking ahead to next season, Rooks is primarily focused on improving his cross country times to help the Cougars claim the NCAA cross country team title.
“We had a shot at possibly winning it last year and ended up getting third,” he said. “We want to win it all this year — so that's gonna be our big focus in the fall.”