Evan Jager celebrates after winning a silver medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase Wednesday. It was the first medal in the Olympic event for U.S. men since the 1984 Games. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

It felt different four years ago. Evan Jager’s life was pointed toward the Olympics, and for months he was a tightly wound ball of nerves. That’s not the preferred mental state when your pursuit of choice involves running seven laps around a track and leaping a total of 35 times over obstacles, splashing into water on seven of those jumps. The end result was a disappointing sixth-place finish in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the London Games.

Not this time, though.

“All year we were just saying it doesn’t feel like an Olympic year,” Jager said. “I feel really relaxed.”

He couldn’t have looked calmer as he circled the track Wednesday morning, maneuvering over the hurdles and around his competitors. The 27-year-old Illinois native won the United States’ first medal in the men’s event since Brian Diemer’s bronze in 1984, capturing silver and finishing in a time of 8:04.28. It’s the highest finish for any American in the race since Horace Ashenfelter’s gold in 1952.

Ezekiel Kemboi, left, of Kenya, and countryman Conseslus Kipruto, center, take an obstacle just behind Evan Jager of the United States. Jager won silver and Kipruto took the gold. Kemboi won the bronze. (Ivan Alvarado/Reuters)

“It was indescribable,” Jager said. “It was a lot of years of hard work, and day-dreaming and dreaming about the moment, all coming true.”

Jager’s time surpassed the previous Olympic record in the event but was a full second behind that of Kenya’s Conseslus Kipruto, who took gold. Fellow Kenyan Ezekiel Kemboi, the two-time gold medalist who is considered by many to be the best steeplechase runner ever, was third across the line but later disqualified after Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad of France protested that Kemboi had at one point stepped inside the track. Mekhissi-Benabbad, the original fourth-place finisher, then took bronze.

“He told me he was going to win,” Kipruto said of his countryman. “Kemboi usually destroys somebody’s mind, but I told him, ‘Let the track show who is to be the king.’ ”

Kenya’s dominance in the race is hardly a surprise. The nation has now won nine straight Olympic steeplechase titles. In fact, it has taken gold at every Olympics except 1980, which Kenya boycotted, and 1976.

Kemboi, 34, won two of those — in 2004 and 2012 — and announced after Wednesday’s race that it would be his last.

“I told him that I was proud of him,” Jager said. “I said, ‘Good job, you’re the greatest of all time.’ . . . No matter how old he is, it’s still a big achievement, and I’m very proud of having beat him in a championship-style race today. He’s incredible.”

Jager is well-versed in the sport’s history and the United States’ recent struggles. “I know how dominant Kenya has been the last 20 or 30 years. I do know how big of an achievement it is,” he said, “but I don’t know if it’s hit me yet. The happiness has definitely hit me.”

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It seemed to hit him at the starting line. He jumped out early and was intent on setting a fast pace. It was a risky move, but it also put some distance between the leaders and most of the field.

“They just went for it,” said American Hillary Bor, the eighth-place finisher.

The eventual first three finishers were all alone, and Jager was in the lead with just four laps to go. But Kipruto raced ahead in the final lap and put some distance between himself and the other two. With about 100 meters remaining, Jager moved past Kemboi for good.

“He kind of looked back at me, took a glance on the back stretch, and I thought that at that moment I might have him,” Jager said.

He called it the “perfect race.”

“It was pure emotion,” Jager said. “I was enjoying every second of it.”

That’s the difference, he says, between the 2016 silver medalist and man who finished sixth at the London Games and sixth again at last year’s world championships. He changed his approach, prepped himself to treat the sport’s biggest stage as he might tackle a training session.

“Within the last couple months, I kind of cleared my conscience and was thinking whatever happens, happens,” he said. “All I can do is try to have my best race on the day. If I had my best race and it wasn’t good enough for a medal, I was gonna be content with it.”

His U.S. teammate Donald Cabral was far behind the leaders on the track and noticed Jager locking up second place on the video scoreboard. He was excited but not surprised.

“I think we’ve all known for a while that Evan’s been at that level to do it,” Cabral said. “. . . I think it’s just a testament to him that he was able to conquer his nerves, conquer the elements and really run the style of race that works for him.”