Coburn golden on global stage
CU graduate wins steeplechase at world championships
As Emma Coburn raced toward the final water barrier in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at the world championships of track and field in London, she remembered what her coach and fiancé, Joe Bosshard, told her before the race: “Make sure the last water jump is powerful.”
By her side Friday with a crowd of 60,000 fans roaring was Kenya’s Hyvin Kiyeng Jepkemoi, the 2015 world champion, and American Courtney Frerichs. Their feet hit the top of the barrier, and Coburn and Frerichs pushed off forcefully, striding perfectly out of the water. Jepkemoi faltered ever so slightly, landed short and lost her momentum.
That was Coburn’s opening.
The University of Colorado graduate pushed to the lead, glided over the final barrier on the homestretch and bolted to the finish, raising her hands as a world champion, with Frerichs just behind claiming silver — an ending that stunned the world of track and field. Coburn’s golden time of 9 minutes, 2.58 seconds was the sixth-fastest ever in the event and broke both the championship and her own American record, the latter of which she lowered by five seconds. Jepkemoi finished in third in 9:04.03.
“I am so happy. I can’t get the smile off my face,” Coburn told The Denver Post from London. “I can’t believe it’s real and that Courtney was able to finish second
and we went 1-2.
“Going over that last hurdle and realizing no one was coming after me, that was an incredible feeling.”
Frerichs — who won an NCAA steeplechase title in 2016 running for New Mexico before joining the Bowerman Track Club in Portland, Ore. — finished in 9:03.77, the No. 7 time ever in the event and an improvement of nearly 16 seconds over her previous best.
No American had medaled in the event at the world championships, let alone won it. The only male or female American ever to win gold in the event at the Olympics was Horace Ashenfelter in 1952. The last 1-2 finish by Americans at any event longer than 400 meters came during the Stockholm Olympics in 1912.
Almost a year ago to the day, Coburn stood on the podium at the Rio Games, her family in the stands, cradling a bronze medal — the first Olympic medal by an American women in the event. Next to her, one step above, was Kenyan-born gold medalist Ruth Jebet of Bahrain, the world-record holder in the event who had long finished ahead of her in international meets.
Friday, Coburn once again faced Jebet, who led through the first 2,000 meters of the race and threw a punishing surge midway through to winnow the field of 15 to six. But Jebet faded to fifth, and the six finishers right behind Coburn and Frerichs were of Kenyan or Ethiopian descent — a remarkable result considering the East Africans’ longtime dominance of distance events at the Olympics and world championships, including steeplechase.
“I knew I was fit, and my training’s all gone really well,” said Coburn, 26. “Everything has indicated that I am in PR shape, and I’m healthy. But … it’s the best steeple field ever. The Kenyan and Bahraini athletes are just at the top of their game right now, so I knew I had to run a perfect race just to be on the podium.”
But everything ultimately came down to that final water jump. Coburn remembers at the 2015 world championships being in a group of five at the final water barrier. Fatigued, she emerged from the pit last and finished fifth. Last year in Rio, she was in a battle for second at the final water jump and emerged slow again, ending up third. This time, Coburn was determined not to do the same.
“I had a bitter memory of those two water jumps and really wanted to give it my all and really focus on my form. And going into it, I was feeling really strong,” Coburn said.
It’s hard to imagine this race going any better for her, and it capped a year of remarkable progress and change. She left her longtime coach, Mark Wetmore, seven weeks after the Rio Olympics to be coached by Bosshard, whom she first met as a teenager in Crested Butte growing up. The couple will marry this fall.
“To be honest, I had never dreamed of winning,” she said. “I dreamed of being on the podium. I dreamed that at some point in my career that nine minutes was a very attainable goal … but never did I imagine it would be a world championship run.”
“Going over that last hurdle and realizing
no one was coming after me, that was
an incredible feeling.” — Emma Coburn
Gold medalist Emma Coburn, a University of Colorado graduate, and silver medalist Courtney Frerichs celebrate Friday after finishing 1-2 in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at the world championships in London.
Coburn, left, and Frerichs make a big splash for U.S. track and field at London’s Olympic Stadium, which was packed with 60,000 fans.