EUGENE, Ore. – Mark Rowland never fancied himself as a steeplechaser.
In his mind, as a working-class lad growing up in West Sussex, England, one who joined a local track and field club at the age of 14, he was destined to be a middle distance runner.
“I wanted to be the best 1,500-meter runner in the world,” said Rowland, now in his 10th season as head coach of Oregon Track Club Elite, a post-collegiate group of professional track and field athletes based in Eugene.
Instead, his athletics career took an unexpected turn. At the end of the 1986 season, after getting a taste of international athletics in the highly competitive 1,500m as a 23-year-old, Rowland asked Alan Storey to be his coach in anticipation of moving up to the 5,000m. Storey, who would become one of Great Britain’s top distance coaches, had another idea.
“He asked me if I had thought about the steeple,” Rowland said. “He said maybe I should give it a go; moving up to the 5K is a long and tough process.”
So, he did.
Today, Rowland reaps the rewards of that decision as he celebrates the 30th anniversary of his bronze medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He clocked a personal best of 8:07.96 in that race, which still stands as the British record. In fact, no one has come within four seconds of his time. Rowland was the sixth British athlete to earn an Olympic medal in the steeplechase, but since 1988, only one other Brit (Tom Hanlon, 6th, 1992) has reached an Olympic final in that event.
All of which Rowland greets with a shrug – a not-too-surprising sentiment since his bronze medal sat in a junk drawer for 25 years. His wife, Stephanie, finally put it up for display five years ago, along with his silver medal from the 1990 European Championships.
“I never considered myself to be that special,” Rowland said. “I just did something special on that particular day.”
‘They called me a disgrace’
The early stages of Rowland’s transition to the steeplechase did not go well. Even though he traveled to Portsmouth once a week during the winter months to work with a coach on his hurdle technique, something was amiss. Rowland said the ankle on his landing leg would “swell up” each time he attempted the water jump.
“That was always my big issue,” he said. “My ankle swelled up after every water jump, at every race, and at one point, I remember thinking, ‘it’s possible I can’t do this.’”
Still, there were some encouraging signs.
In his debut performance, a 2,000m steeplechase in Grenada, Spain, he placed second overall, beating reigning Olympic champion Julius Korir, of Kenya, in the process. He followed up with a solid 8:26 effort in his first full 3,000m steeplechase in France, but finished the race with a tight calf muscle, and disdain for the event.
“It was horrible,” Rowland recalled. “I absolutely hated it.”
Things only got worse at the 1987 British Athletics Championships, the selection meet for the IAAF World Championships in Rome. Rowland fell after hitting a barrier with 600 meters to go, fought hard to make up ground, and then swerved wide on the top bend after the final water jump, forgetting he needed to clear one more barrier before the sprint to the finish line.
“There was only one spot open and I didn’t make it,” he said.
His performance was also heavily criticized by the media.
“They called me a disgrace,” he said. “They said I should never be allowed to run the steeple again; that I was a danger to the other competitors with my terrible technique, hitting barriers, and just being all over the place.”
Undaunted, Rowland closed out the season with back-to-back steeplechase races, including a PB of 8:21 in Lausanne, Switzerland. By that time, deep inside, and despite the negative reactions, or even perhaps because of them, he was certain he would master the event.
“I knew I could do this,” he said. “There was something inside me that told me, ‘I’m going to crack this.’ I wasn’t going to let other people tell me I couldn’t do something. It really pissed me off.”
The Olympic journey
At the beginning of 1988, an Olympic year, Rowland was more determined than ever to become a world-class steeplechaser. He spent countless hours reviewing video footage of his water jump technique, until one day, he finally realized what he was doing wrong. He also consulted a sports psychologist to help with his mental preparation. He gradually increased his miles, getting fit, gaining confidence, and building momentum.
As a 24-year-old father with a wife and two children at home, he still needed to earn a living, so he painted houses during the winter, and then traveled to the U.S. in February and March to earn some cash on the road racing circuit.
Due to heat concerns, the Seoul Olympics were held in mid-September, so Rowland’s outdoor season began June 1, when he ran a PB of 13:21 in a 5,000m race in Spain. He backed that up with a lifetime best of 3:34 in the 1,500m in Italy, and tacked on an 8:16 PB in the steeplechase in Sweden.
Clearly, he was on a roll.
“I was running well, hurdling well, doing good sessions,” Rowland said. “But I might have run too quick, because I tweaked something in my lower back, and I thought I might not make the (British) Trials.”
The Trials were held in Birmingham, and although the British selection system allows for one discretionary pick along with the top two finishers in each race, Rowland was told that he would have to run to make the team.
“I really shouldn’t have been running,” he said. “But I had to if I wanted to make the team.”
And so he did.
Despite a painful lower back, temperatures hovering in the mid-90s, and inadvertently taking off on the wrong foot on the last water jump, Rowland won that race to claim his first major outdoor championship.
“I made it through somehow,” he said. “It could have all been over right there.”
The race of a lifetime
Rowland arrived in Seoul with little fanfare. In only his second season in the steeplechase, he was a relative unknown on the world stage.
Even so, he remained confident.
“I wasn’t there to spectate,” Rowland said. “I wanted to win an Olympic medal. I wanted to be the best in the world.”
His first job was to make the final, which he accomplished by placing second in his qualifying heat (8:31.40) and third in his semifinal (8:18.31.)
In all, 13 runners advanced to the 1988 Olympic steeplechase final, and seven of those athletes had personal bests better than the existing British record – which at 8:12.11 was more than four seconds faster than Rowland’s PB.
The race favorites included a trio of Kenyans – Julius Kariuki, Peter Koech and Patrick Sang – along with world champion Franceso Panetta of Italy. Henry Marsh represented Team USA and Graeme Fell was the lone Canadian in the race.
“No question, the Kenyans were the ones to beat,” Rowland said.
On race day, Rowland briefly went missing in the call-up to the final. As British track and field officials frantically searched for him, he was safely tucked away beneath the stands, keeping to himself, and staying out of the mid-day sun.
At one point, after he had emerged from his hiding spot, he locked eyes with Panetta.
“I remember we looked into each other’s eyes, and I thought, ‘I’ve got you.’” Rowland said.
His strategy, as devised by his coach, Alan Storey, was to stay with the Kenyans as long as possible, but not to go with the pace. In other words, he needed to use his racing instincts and be ready for any moves.
“Alan told me I could run 8:12,” Rowland said. “How much quicker, he didn’t know.”
The race unfolded on world-record pace with Panetta out front.
However, at 2000m, Panetta slowed, and both Koech and Kariuki breezed past. Rowland was the lone runner to stick with the Kenyans. Running what British commentators called “the race of his life,” Rowland gamely hung on over the final 600m, making one last push for second at the final water jump.
“I felt great,” Rowland said. “I just kept going, kept attacking.”
In the end, Kariuki hit the tape in 8:05.51 to win the gold medal, just missing Henry Rono’s world record of 8:05.40. Koech settled for silver at 8:06.79, and Rowland took the bronze at 8:07.96, shattering his PB by eight seconds. All three times bettered the Olympic record of 8:08.02.
British record ‘has to go’
The Olympic aftermath is still a blur for Rowland.
In those days, there was no British flag to be draped around his shoulders after the race, and no lap of honor, even for a bronze medalist.
He remembers people shouting his name, searching the stands for his coach, and a trip to drug testing where he cracked a beer with the physician on duty. There were multiple TV interviews and, finally, a formal meeting with the world press.
Back home in England, Stephanie Rowland remembers the “phone going mental” after the race. She said she had been “too nervous” to watch the first four laps, but did tune in for the last four laps, watching in astonishment with her 6-year-old daughter, Suzanne, who was “screaming and yelling at the telly.”
“It was sort of surreal,” she said. “We had never had that kind of attention before. I was only 24 and it was quite intimidating.”
Although Rowland would never run faster in the steeplechase, he remained in the top 10 of the world rankings for the next two seasons. His last major global achievement was a silver medal at the 1990 European Championships.
Most important, however, is the fact that all of the lessons and concepts he absorbed in his blue-collar journey to an Olympic bronze medal continue to inform his coaching methods to this day.
And he would love to see somebody break his 30-year-old British record in the steeplechase.
“It has to go,” he said. “Hopefully, someone can do it, and I hope I can coach that person … it would be lovely to think I could pick up a Brit and coach him to beat my record. But that’s just dreaming, isn’t it?”
But so was winning an Olympic medal in the steeplechase.