Emma Coburn: The Climb to the top

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Coburn_EmmaQ-London17.jpGEmma Coburn, photo by PhotoRun.net

In this feature on Emma Coburn, written by David Hunter, we learn about the motivation and focus of the Olympic bronze medalist. In London, Emma Coburn is looking for another medal to add to her collection. And she is in the medal fight, as she has been over the past two several years.

We wish Emma best wishes on Friday night!

August 9th, 2017

London, England

In the development and progression of world class track & field talent, some performers [e.g. an Allyson Felix; perhaps a Christian Coleman] can step right onto the world stage and quickly experience success. For others, that evolution from national winner to influential global athlete occurs - if at all - on a different timetable. Think about it: it is not uncommon for an American athlete [e.g. a Galen Rupp; a Nick Symmonds; and may we now add a Phyllis Francis] to be a dominating performer in his or her own country, yet must further develop, build confidence, and sometimes even learn how to race and compete in the rarefied air of a global championship to achieve success on a worldwide level. It has ever been so.

When faced with the domestic / global challenge, there are, of course, some athletes who simply can't make the transition. But one who surely has is American steeplechase record-holder and Olympic bronze medalist Emma Coburn. The Colorado native authored an impressive collegiate career at the University of Colorado garnering an NCAA steeplechase title. As a post-collegian, Coburn continued refining her craft under the watchful of long distance guru Mark Wetmore as she continued to experience impressive progression. She has continued to taste domestic success as a 6-time national steeplechase champion. On the international stage, Coburn's success was more measured, but nonetheless progressive. At the 2011 world championships in Daegu, she was 10th in the steeple final. At the London Olympics the following year, she moved up to 8th in the steeplechase championship race. In 2014 - a non-championship year - Coburn battled with the best in several Diamond League contests, finishing 2nd twice. At the 2015 Worlds in Beijing, she once again was a steeple finalist, now finishing 5th. Coburn was creeping toward the medal stand. And in the '16 Rio Games, her perseverance paid off as she made the podium with a 3rd place finish.

In a fortuitous development leading up to the first round of the steeplechase in these championships, Coburn drew the 3rd and final heat while her USA teammates - emerging young stars Colleen Quigley and Courtney Frerichs - would race in the first two. This would give Olympic bronze medalist the opportunity to watch her compatriots compete and to learn from the first two heats the pace and timing that would lead to time qualifiers. But it was not to be. "It was really odd. The beauty of being in the 3rd heat is you always get to see the times ahead of you. But when we were in the Call Room, they wouldn't let us look at the screen, saying it was an unfair advantage," Coburn exclaimed. "And I said that is the point of being in the 3rd heat - that's the rule of the sport! [To witness the performances of athletes in the earlier heats] is not cheating," a bewildered Coburn added, citing yet another example of what many have lamented as unduly aggressive officiating in these championships.

As it turned out, Coburn had concluded her race and was in the mixed zone before she was advised that Frerichs had run a heady 9:25.14 to earn a 3rd place automatic qualifier and that Quigley's Big Q effort [an apparent 3rd place finish in 9:39.3] was taken away when she was disqualified for a line violation coming out of the last water jump.

The Call Room sequestration also impacted Coburn in her race. "So I was running my heat blind. I knew the first heat had gone slow. But I didn't how fast I had to go. I was hoping to sit behind people and not have to work." But Coburn's heat rolled out differently. "That first K [3:13] was so slow. And in the second K [3:09/6:22], I took over a little bit but I didn't really want to give too much effort. So we had to close a little bit fast to get it down to a small group. And I didn't know if I needed to run 9:25 - was that the qualifier or not? So the last 100 I was trying to get into that top 3, and not 4th." Not to worry. That modest injection in pace pushed Coburn across the line in an easy-peasy 9:27.36, a 2nd place finish that gave her an automatic qualifier into the Friday's final.

There was some restrained grousing by steeplers in the mixed about limiting the per heat automatic qualifier to just the top 3 finishers per heat. "Yeah. Maybe 4+3 would make the most sense," offered Coburn, who now is coached by her fiancé Joe Bosshard. "To be honest, the women's steeple is so top heavy right now with the Kenyans and Ruth Chebet and after the 9:20 mark, it really drops off. There's a big group of women running between 9:16 and 9:22. So I don't know if a different qualifying way would help or hurt those women. It's pretty top heavy 9:20 and down."

Coburn has given some thought about what might unfold when Friday's final gets underway. "I think it's going to be fast. I think I am ready for it to be fast," she states without hesitation. "Beatrice [Chepkoech of Kenya] ran 8:28 for a flat 3K in Monaco. So she is one of the best in the world flat out right now. So I think she is going to go and make it fast.

The 26-year-old two-time Olympian is quite aware of the journey of progression she has traveled to have risen to the very global pinnacle of her event. "The medal is something I am very proud of and happy to have," declares Coburn in reflecting upon her American record-setting performance in the Rio steeple final that won her the bronze. Yet the former NCAA champion knows her Olympic medal was really the result of a series of incremental steps along the way. "But going all the way back to 2014, I was battling for the win in a lot of Diamond League meets. And it wasn't a championship year, but that year was really when I started seeing myself at the top of the game and with the top women. And the steeplechase really changed the last 18 months and I don't feel like I have guaranteed spot anywhere on that podium just because of that bronze medal. I have to work for it every day." While her Rio bronze doesn't entitle Emma Coburn to a place on the podium, Emma knows that Olympic medal is a visible reminder that she has the demonstrated capability to get there.

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