Niyo: UM steeplechaser harbors Olympics hopes

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — The barriers are three feet high, and though the water pits aren’t quite that deep, the distance between the two — the fall from grace, if you will — can’t be measured with a yardstick.

Michigan’s Mason Ferlic, like nearly every track athlete who attempts the steeplechase — a race meant for horses, not people — learned that the hard way last spring. One of the prerace favorites in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the NCAA outdoor championships, he was right where he wanted to be, at the front of the pack 1,000 meters in.

But there was some jostling before the water pit, and then Ferlic’s lead leg clipped the front of the barrier — instead of stepping on top of it — and at that point, he recalled with a laugh after a recent workout at Ferry Field, “you really can’t do anything.”

“I just hit it and I remember cartwheeling over the top of it, head over heels in the air,” said Ferlic, then a redshirt junior, “and I’m like, ‘What the heck just happened?’”

His next thought: “Oh, shoot, this is gonna hurt.”

Physically, first, as he broke his fall with his hands, then rolled and splashed into the 12-foot long, 21/2-foot deep water pit.

“And I remember getting up and it was like a slow-motion scene coming out of the water, completely drenched,” said Ferlic, a lanky, 6-foot-4 native of St. Paul, Minn. “The first couple steps my shoes are just waterlogged. And it’s this panic scenario thinking (about) what just happened. I just blew it. I just fell in front of 10,000 people, on national television, at the national meet.”

The rest is mostly a soggy blur, racing madly to catch up to the field but then running on fumes at the end to finish 12th in a 12-man race he thought he could win.

“I was definitely on a high before that,” Ferlic said, “and that fall kind of put me back in check, I guess. … You can’t take anything for granted.”

And he hasn’t, which partly explains why the fifth-year senior is headed back to the scene of the crime — “going back for redemption,” as he puts it — as the top seed in the steeplechase for this week’s NCAA outdoor meet at Oregon’s historic Hayward Field. Ferlic, who owns the nation’s top college time this season (8 minutes 29.54 seconds), will run the semifinals Wednesday night in Eugene, with the final scheduled for Friday night.

“You don’t want to think about it, obviously,” he said. “You don’t want to have a cloud hanging over you that, ‘Man, I fell last year, what if I fall again this year?’ No, we’re going back to get the job done.

“Winning an NCAA title, that’s the goal. I think I’ve got a legitimate shot. I think I’m the favorite. That’s a little pressure, but it’s something I feel like I’ve earned. So that’s the mentality: It’s my race to win.”

‘Found a new event’

That it’s his race at all is a story in itself, as the 22-year-old distance specialist — a former state track and cross country champ in Minnesota’s small-school division — tried the event on a whim his second year in Ann Arbor.

Ferlic was struggling to drop time in the 5,000-meter run as a redshirt freshman, so former Michigan coach Alex Gibby — now at N.C.-Charlotte — entered him in the steeplechase at a meet in Toledo.

“And I was terrified: I was like, ‘I’ve never done this event before, never done the water pit — I’m gonna land on my face,’ ” said Ferlic, who didn’t, as it turned out, running the fastest time in the Big Ten that season (8:51.55) and telling Gibby at the finish line, “Well, we found a new event.”

Since then, he has made it his specialty, finishing third at the Big Ten championships and fourth at NCAAs in 2014. He won the Big Ten title last year. And whatever confidence was shaken by last year’s NCAA title-meet tumble, he has regained it — and more — this season.

He defended his Big Ten indoor title in the 5,000 and won the outdoor 5K as well. But it was the 8:28.77 he clocked in the steeplechase at Stanford’s Payton Jordan Invitational in early May — as the only college runner in the race — that really raised the bar. That time was under the Olympic standard, meaning a top-three finish at next month’s U.S. Olympic Trials will earn him a trip to the Rio Games in August.

“It has been a big breakthrough year in terms of him realizing that he can do this at a much higher level,” said Kevin Sullivan, the former Michigan All-American and Canadian Olympian who returned in 2014 as the school’s cross country coach and track assistant. “It’s one thing to dream it and it’s another when you realize, ‘I’m actually running Olympic-caliber times.’”

Pondering the future

He’ll have to go lower — much lower — to get to Rio, though. American record-holder Evan Jager should be a lock for one of the Olympics spots. And a handful of others, including veteran Dan Huling, who was fifth at last year’s World Championships, have run under 8:25 in the last year.

“But I think I can mix it up with the best,” Ferlic said. “I think there’s six guys that on any given day could make the team. And I certainly think I can be one of them.”

Whether he makes it or not, his recent success has altered his post-college plans. Six months ago, he was running cross country and telling himself, “I’ve gotta start job hunting and figure out what I’m doing.”

Now Ferlic, who completed his master’s degree in aerospace engineering this year, is discussing a professional track career with Sullivan and others.

“I’m in a spot where I can continue the running career and the dream,” he said. “I feel like I’ve got more to prove.”

Starting with that water pit in Eugene.