Nova Southeastern steeplechase athlete takes an unusual path in an unusual race

·5 min read
RHONA WISE/Courtesy of Nova Southeastern University.

Ivanova Yanes tried to clear a steeplechase hurdle for the first time in a January practice run, and her effort was met with a large thud.

The barrier won, and Yanes clearly lost.

“She skinned up her knees and hands,” said Zach Hall, an assistant track coach for Nova Southeastern University. “No one else fell except her.

“I asked her if she wanted to try again. She gave me an incredulous look. Of course she was going to try again. Iva is possibly the most optimistic person I’ve ever met.”

Just five months later, that optimism — and a lot of hard work — led to an astonishing result as Yanes was named to the 2022 NCAA Division II All-Region team in the steeplechase.

The steeplechase originated in the 18th century in Ireland, where, initially, horses and riders raced from one town’s church steeple to the next. The steeples were used as markers due to their visibility over long distances.

Runners soon joined the “fun,” jumping over streams and low stone walls which separated estates.

Steeplechase was part of the University of Oxford’s sports program as far back as 1860, and the Grand National has been held in England since 1839. The event has been part of the Olympics since 1920 for men and 2008 for women.

At the collegiate level, the race is 3,000 meters or 7.5 laps. There are four hurdles (30 inches tall for the women, 36 for the men) and one water pit (12 feet long for both genders) per lap.

“The water barrier is especially difficult,” NSU track coach Bryan Hagopian said. “It’s at an incline. The shorter you jump, the deeper the water. You may start out landing in ankle-deep or mid-calf water.

“But as you get more tired, you can land knee deep or even mid thigh.”

All that splashing water from numerous runners can make visibility difficult.

“There’s water everywhere,” Yanes said, “and you have to see where you land.”

At a race in Tennessee this past season, Yanes was accidentally spiked from behind as runners battled for position.

“Someone landed on my right calf, but I kept running,” Yanes said. “When I finished the race, there was blood.”

The barriers in steeple are made of solid wood, 8 feet long by 4 inches deep. In “normal” track events, the hurdle falls when hit, not the runner.

“But in the steeple, if you hit that barrier, you go face first to the ground,” Hall said. “And if you fall, you will get trampled. You’ll have a bunch of metal spikes from someone’s foot somewhere on your body.

“Steeple is about survival. I see the highly trained pro steeplechasers hit the ground from exhaustion after a race.”

Fitness and bravery are big parts of the steeplechase, but Hagopian said there’s something else in play.

“The steeplechase is like the pole vault — you have to have a screw loose to do it,” Hagopian said. “To me, steeple is the toughest event in track. Second would be the marathon.”

Yanes, 20, was born in Caracas, and she and her family moved to South Florida when she was 15.

She comes from a family of competitive runners, including her parents, who ran the steeple for prize money in Venezuela.

“I wanted to run the steeple since I was little,” said Yanes, the youngest of four siblings. “But people told me I was too short (5-2). If you have long legs, you can clear the hurdles easier.”

Another issue for Yanes was her charter high school, Hollywood Avant Garde, which did not have a track team when she enrolled.

But Yanes — ever the optimist — would not be denied. She convinced 15 classmates to sign up for track.

Similarly, Yanes got to NSU by sheer hustle.

“I emailed the coaches,” Yanes said. “Nobody knew me, and my times [as a distance runner] were sketchy.”

Hall admits he initially doubted that Yanes was worth a scholarship.

“We’re open with our athletes,” Hall said. “They know everything that is said about them in our recruiting process.

“Bryan [Hagopian] and I were discussing Iva. I didn’t even know her name at the time. I was trying to get times on her, but we couldn’t find much. She didn’t make state.

“But Bryan said: ‘She’s going to be really good. She’s had almost no training. You have to believe me on this.’”

The turning point came when Hagopian asked Hall what Yanes would have to run for him to get on board. Hall wanted a two-mile time under 12 minutes.

Hagopian went to see Yanes’ next race, which she won by 40 seconds.

Her time: 11:59.

“At that point,” Hall said, “I knew I was wrong about that girl.”

Yanes was the Sunshine State Conference’s Freshman Runner of the Year in 2021, and she earned the aforementioned All-Region honor as a sophomore.

She already owns the school-record time for the 3,000-meter steeplechase.

Yanes wanted to run the steeplechase as a freshman, but Hagopian opted to wait a year so she could be properly trained.

It was a wise decision.

“This is my 15th year at NSU, and she is already one of the top five athletes I’ve ever coached in any event,” Hagopian said. “My hope is that she qualifies for nationals next year and becomes an All-American.”

Added Hall: “Iva is absurdly strong, maintains her pace. Her fast development has been insane.”

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