Air Force’s best track athlete didn’t plan on running track at the academy. Even more amazingly, Air Force’s track coaches weren’t all that excited to have him come out for the team.

When Justin Tyner performs in the 3,000-meter steeplechase this week at the NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championship in Des Moines, Iowa, after winning the event at the West Preliminary Meet last month, he’ll have perhaps the most unlikely career path of any competitor there. The other athletes probably didn’t have to ask their schools to recruit them.

Tyner reached out to the Air Force. He always wanted to fly airplanes and had his heart set on going to the academy for years, never considering being an athlete at the school. But he was becoming a good – but admittedly not great – high school distance runner in Minnesota, so he contacted the track coaches to see if they would be interested. They were, in the same way someone would be interested in free tickets to a show they had never planned to see.

Air Force didn’t go visit him. It didn’t use one of its allowed visits on Tyner.

“He wouldn’t have been one of our top 20 prospects,” Air Force coach Ralph Lindeman said.

Four years later, Tyner’s coaches believe he can win a NCAA Championship as his Air Force career comes to an end.

“The improvement he has shown from year to year is phenomenal,” Lindeman said.

Tyner had a forgettable freshman season. As a sophomore, he took off. Under the tutelage of new assistant coach Juli Benson, who is the Falcons’ cross country head coach and helps with the track team’s middle distance and long distance runners, Tyner was named the team’s most improved runner.

Tyner gives most of the credit to Benson. When he started showing improvement as a sophomore, her positive attitude pushed him to think about things like setting school records, and possibly becoming an All-American.

“I started thinking, ‘You know what, I can do some things at this school,’” Tyner said. “I just started dreaming big. I knew it would take a lot of work, though.”

As a junior, he became an All-American, and school records began to fall as well. As a junior he set academy records in the indoor 5,000 meter, the outdoor 1,500 and the outdoor 5,000. He beat the previous indoor 5,000 record by almost 15 seconds.

Tyner continued to perform at a high level as a senior. He was named Most Valuable Athlete in the men’s program last month. He was fifth in the 3,000 at the NCAA Championships during the indoor season. He ranked in the nation’s top 30 in the 1,500, the 5,000 and the steeplechase in the outdoor season, but decided to concentrate on the steeplechase in NCAA competition.

Tyner’s main competition this week will be defending NCAA steeplechase champion Matt Hughes of Louisville. Tyner’s best time this season was less than 2 seconds off what Hughes ran at NCAA regionals. Tyner was ranked third nationally in the steeplechase after the regular season.

“That tells me no person I’m toeing the line against is that much faster than me,” Tyner said.

Tyner said he thinks he can win the title. After his astonishing rise at Air Force, the Falcons’ staff doesn’t doubt him.

“He’s not the favorite in anyone’s eyes except ours,” Lindeman said.