Insights from the World Champ: Steeple Star Emma Coburn looks ready for 7th Title


Emma Coburn has worked very hard over the past decade to become the finest American steeplechaser ever, and our first World Champion at the distance. Her win in London last year was a wonderful thing to behold. Her two steeples in 2018, prior to Des Moines were tough races, one with a fall, and one with barriers at the men's heights, which shook up her race a bit. What was promising, to this observer, was how fast she recovered in the fall and in the second race, how hard her finish was.

In this fine feature, one of four features over the next four days, David Hunter writes about Emma Coburn, just after she qualified from the women's steeplechase final.

Emma Coburn has moved her competitions to the next level, she is much more aggressive and confident, and we look forward to seeing her go under nine minutes.

Coburn_Emma1-PreC17.jpgEmma Coburn, photo by

Emma Coburn is an American track & field specialist in the 3000 meter steeplechase. The 6-time USATF national steeplechase champion has posted 8 of the top 10 fastest all-time American clockings in the barriered event, including her American record mark of 9:02.58. Twice the NCAA steeplechase champion while at the University of Colorado, Coburn has been a 2-time Olympic finalist in the steeple and captured the bronze in Rio in 2016. Decorated, experienced, and in the prime of her career, the 27-year-old Coburn is accustomed to the attention and the pressure that accompanies being the greatest American steeplechaser of all time. But Coburn's notoriety ratcheted up a couple of levels last August when she accomplished something no other American had ever done before: she captured gold to become the world champion in the 3000 meter steeplechase.

Coburn_EmmaBW1-FLcc17.jpgEmma Coburn, photo by

In Des Moines, in search of her 7th national steeplechase title, the Crested Butte, the Colorado native took time in the mixed zone to reflect on her preliminary round performance on Drake's big blue oval - an easy-peasy 9:48.79 cakewalk where the world champion floated behind an early leader, took charge with 900 meters remaining, and breezed on to victory. "I just wanted to get through it as easy as possible and not be in traffic," offered the relaxed 4-time defending champion. "And I so was happy that Megan [Rolland] wanted to take it out and I just followed her for the first 3 or 4 laps. I'm glad that I was able to run as easy as possible and start resting for Saturday."

Coburn - whose fall-marred 9:08.13 in Rome is still #5 on this year's world list - was frank about Saturday's final and the possibility of a fast time if the weather remains cool and dry. Would she take a shot at breaking 9:00? "Yeah," blurted Coburn who has repeatedly stated that a major goal for her is to become the 5th member of the sub-9:00 club. "The biggest goal in that race is to win. At the time, I'm not going to kill myself to get that time in the finals if it is not happening. The goal in that race is to finish as high as I can. And I think a fast time will come out of it. But I think Monaco would be a good chance for it [a sub-9:00 attempt]. And really I just have to continue to push passed any comfort zones and really attack that time and attack for the win. So Brussels is important and I'm running there and I'm not sure it would come there or not." In Saturday's final, sub-9:00 might not be in the cards. But with world championship silver medalist Courtney Frerichs also in race, the Drake Stadium record of 9:29.20 is definitely in jeopardy.

Smiling while replying to a media inquiry about the two star-crossed incidents that tarnished her two recent European competitions, Coburn was candid about what occurred. "My last two races were strong and I thought that I ran well. Each race had an annoying aspect [a stumbling fall coming out of the final water jump in Rome; and a wrong-heighted barrier in Oslo]. The barrier was not my fault; the fall was my fault. Coming back from Europe I know I'm fit but I felt I left a lot on the table. So having today go smoothly with no drama was great."

The steeplechase star was frank when asked if she was surprised to learn of unofficial reports suggesting Ruth Chebet had tested positively for the use of a banned substance. "No. Actually, Duh!" she laughs. "That's how I kind of personally felt. And I have many conversations with Ruth, but someone's personality being really friendly and nice is not necessarily an indication of how they compete," explains Coburn, citing Bahrain athlete's enormous steeple improvement that prompted widespread skepticism. "I just prepare as best I can and be prepared to fight. I'm just going to focus on myself," explains Coburn on her realistic approach to a situation she can't control. But the world champion quickly acknowledges that she believes Chebet's marks, if tainted, are still within reach of talented athletes - who are clean. ""I think the times are attainable, but I just think the jump that she had and the way the races were run are what make you suspicious. But I think it is possible that other women can do that in a clean way. It's frustrating whenever you line up with someone who you think is maybe not doing it the same way you are or who have kept clean as you are. I'm just going to focus on myself. And until she is officially punished, I can't really demonize her because she has not yet been charged."

Before heading off for a cool down, Coburn - whose American record-setting performance last August in the London finale made her the #7 steeplechase performer of all-time - provided insights into the opportunities, the responsibilities, and the challenges that accompany being a track & field world champion. "In my experience running in the Diamond League since 2011 and having been in the Olympics with them, the women in the steeplechase have always been really friendly and respectful," declares Coburn without hesitation. "I only speak English, so I cannot communicate in other languages, but when the other athletes speak English we can communicate well," states the Olympic bronze medalist before citing an incident of competitive comfort. "I remember in one meet I cried because I was upset and one of my Ethiopian competitors wiped my tears away, saying 'Don't cry. Don't cry. You're too nice to cry.' There is a real respect among each other. We all want to beat each other, wanting to win. And that side of it doesn't go away. But the title of world champion hasn't changed anything between us."

Coburn-FrerichsFVR-WorCH17.jpgEmma Coburn, Courtney Frerichs, World Championships, London 2017, photo by

Coburn acknowledges a certain sense of responsibility that should be recognized as going with the territory by all world champions - past and present. "I think there are many athletes who have won many more medals than I and are doing a great job. I'm trying to carry the weight that I can, just keep doing me, race well, and show up at starting lines ready to compete well and not just rest on the fact that I have two medals in my closet. I'm trying to be hungry and be competitive." Before dashing off, Emma Coburn fields one final question: Have you discovered any burdens or annoyances that accompany being world champion? "Oh no. It's all great - so far," laughs Coburn. Even if any such challenges would subsequently emerge, there shouldn't be a problem. Emma Coburn has always cleared barriers with ease.

Leave a comment

Wake up to RunBlogRun's news in your inbox. Sign up for our newsletter and we'll keep you informed about the Sport you love.

Subscribe to RunBlogRun's Global News Feed

* indicates required