No Barriers For Courtney Frerichs, Stunning Collegiate Progression Fuels Steepler For More

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Courtney Frerichs won the NCAA steeplechase, and broke the collegiate record of another notable steepelchaser-one Jenny Simpson. Courtney has blossomed over the past year, and David Hunter captures that brilliant adventure in this fine piece.

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2016 NCAA Div. I Outdoor Track & Field Championships / Day Four

No Barriers For Courtney Frerichs
Stunning Collegiate Progression Fuels Steepler For More

The thrill of witnessing a collegiate athlete win a first outdoor track & field championship never gets old. The initial exhilaration exhibited after the title is secured and the flow of emotion that often follows is always a unique moment to behold. For most, earning that coveted collegiate victory is far from surprising. The 1st place trophy is normally captured by an athlete who has shown promise from the beginning and has matched it with savvy training and discipline to achieve a goal that very few ever even approach. But when a track & field athlete who initially shows little promise, trudges through an unremarkable high school career, and then - suddenly blessed with the right combination of good coaching, top flight facilities, and personal determination - blossoms into an elite track & field performer, well then you have something special indeed.

Courtney Frerichs is that very special athlete. On the final day of the 2016 NCAA outdoor track & field championships, the Missouri native - who came late to the sport and assembled a brief and undistinguished high school career - went right to the front after the crack of the starter's pistol for the women's 3000 meter steeplechase final.

"I started out with a hard first K. I kind of wanted to put a little scare in everyone," she confided afterwards. "From there, I wanted to see how I felt." Daring her competitors to join her, she maintained an ambitious pace while her lead lengthened steadily as she smoothly cleared the barriers and negotiated the water jumps. As her advantage grew, it became clear that that Frerichs was gunning not only for the win - she also wanted to take down the collegiate record of 9:25.54 set by former Colorado star and 1500m world champion Jenny Simpson [née Barringer]. "I knew it [the collegiate record] was possible and it was going to be hard. But my coach was just yelling at me every lap, telling me that I could do it. It [the race pace] finally got me going that last lap." Running unchallenged over the final kilometer, Frerichs dug down deep as she drove for the record. After bounding through the final water jump and rounding the Bowerman Curve, the New Mexico athlete spotted the electronic finish line clock and simply put her head down and sprinted. "I was just wishing the clock would slow down. I was wondering what the tenths we're on Jenny's record," she laughed. Crossing the line in 9:24.41, Frerichs clipped 1.13 seconds off Simpson's collegiate record to become the #6 steeplechase performer on the U.S. all-time list [behind, in ascending order: Garcia, Pierce, O'Connor, Simpson, and Coburn]. "I knew it was going to be close. It was amazing to come across."

The senior had several goals coming into this championship final. "The primary goal was to win because this is my last chance. I was kind of soaking in the last opportunity to be in a collegiate meet. But the record was definitely in the back of my head." Frerichs gathered confidence from her impressive and unchallenged win earlier this spring at Stanford. "I knew the 9:29.31 [which was the #3 all-time collegiate performance] was a decent solo effort. And I'm a lot better than that now. Now I'm a lot fitter than I was. I knew it was possible. I just had to really get after it," offered Frerichs. "I felt pretty good the whole time. The second to the last water jump was a little rough. That kind of startled me a little bit. I would say I got tired the last two. I knew the time could be there. I knew it was a possibility at 2K. But with a K to go, that's still pretty difficult. But the last K is my strongest."

To fully appreciate Frerich's record run for the championship win requires an understanding of how humble her early years in the sport had been. "I ran one year of cross country as a senior in high school. I finished 54th at the state meet," proclaimed Frerichs, able to smile as she reflects on the long way she has come. "I came out of high school with a 2:24 800 meter PR. I never raced a mile. I never raced a two mile." As a gangly frosh at the University of Missouri at Kansas City, Frerichs registered a 10:34 in the steeplechase - hardly an eye-popping clocking. But then a special conversation took place between the young freshman and her UMKC coach James Butler. "He told me I could be an NCAA champion four years ago after I completed my freshman year."

Butler had seen something in his young athlete that no one else had - not even Frerichs. And the pivotal coach-athlete conversation that ensued fueled a transformative progression. Butler painted the vision which Frerichs then saw clearly. After that honest exchange, Butler's young protégé was all in. The startling progression that followed was all up and to the right. As a sophomore, Butler's promising steeplechaser shaved more than half a minute off her frosh steeple PR, clocking 9:55.02 to finish 6th in the NCAA final. After re-shirting the following outdoor season, the older, stronger, and wiser Frerichs returned in the spring of 2015 and sliced yet another 23+ seconds from her personal best in the barrier event and finished second in the NCAA steeple final behind Florida State's Colleen Quigley. Shortly thereafter, changes were ahead as the emerging star - feeling somewhat isolated at UMKC and seeking a team environment - followed the lead of the departing Coach Butler, transferring to the University of New Mexico to stay under the tutelage of her collegiate mentor. "I was also looking for a change in environment," she explained. "I wanted a team because I thought that's what I needed to get to the next level." It was the right move. Frerichs thrived in the high plains. Surrounded by and training with talented distance running mates, the new transplant led the Lobos to the 2015 NCAA Div. I Cross Country team title as Frerichs finished 4th to lead all Lobo harriers. Selective racing this year - both indoors and outdoors - positioned Frerichs to achieve the dream Butler outlined for her 4 years ago. "When my coach [Butler] told me four years ago he thought I could do this, I thought he was a little crazy," the new champion revealed. "I thought being an All-American was going to be an amazing feat. But he believes in me and at times he pushed me. I owe it to him."

Frerichs appreciates how magical this final collegiate year has been. "I couldn't have been any better," she beamed. "It started off on an amazing note. Winning a team title is the most amazing thing that could ever happen in my collegiate career. It made the stress of July worth it. Transferring was kind of stressful. But this year has been actually amazing. I couldn't have asked for anything else."

With the 1st place steeplechase trophy under her arm, Frerichs knows the way forward. "Go back to Albuquerque. Keep training. And take a shot at the Olympic Trials," she outlined with a smile. I'm planning on going professional and we'll figure some of that stuff out in the next coming days."

Not too many 2:24 high school 800 meter runners ever get to toe the line at the U.S. Olympic Trials. But Frerichs can't wait. "I'm excited. I haven't been in a fast race yet. I think today gave me a lot of confidence that maybe if I can get in a fast race I can run a lot faster. My coach told me, 'You know what Jenny ran after she ran the 9:25.' [She ran an American record 9:12.50 later that summer in Berlin]. I'm excited to see what happens regardless. I'm excited for the future. This year has been amazing." And here's the best part: it's not over yet.

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