OG/Day Six : Risk/Reward in the w3000m Steeplechase

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Peruth.jpgPeruth Chemutai took gold in the steeplechase, the first steeple medal for Uganda! photo: @BSRagencynl

Coburn_Emma-w-OlyTrials21w.jpgEmma Coburn, 2016 Rio bronze, 2017 London gold, 2019 Doha silver, hit a barrier, finished and then was DQed, photo from June 2021, US Olympic Trials, by Kevin Morris /Kevmofoto

Frerichs_Courtney-w-OlyTrials21w.jpgIn a bold move, full of risk, Courtney Frerichs ran away from the field with 3 laps to go, only getting caught by one Peruth Chemutai, and holding on for Olympic silver medal

This is David Hunter's feature on Day six. He wrote this piece on the emotionally draining women's steeplechase, where one of our heroines almost stole the show, taking silver medal in the Olympics, and the other hit a barrier and was DQed.

OG/Day Six : Risk/Reward in the w3000m Steeplechase

August 4th, 2021

To earn the opportunity to stand on the Olympic podium and receive a hard-earned Olympic medal, you have to be talented, be committed, be willing to sacrifice other opportunities, have a savvy coach and dedicated support team; be able to summon up your best performance when it counts - and one more thing - you still have to be willing to be bold, to make a vulnerable move in the hopes you will be rewarded. You have to risk it to get the biscuit.

The final of the women's 3000 meter steeplechase was held under hot and muggy conditions during the evening session of Day Six of these Tokyo Games. Lingering questions made this event difficult to evaluate. While heading into this delayed Olympic year, it was suspected that world record holder Beatrice Chepkoech would arrive in Tokyo as the odds-on favorite in this event. But the 2019 Doha world champion has struggled, has been off her game, and came to the Games ranked as the 7th best performer on this year's world list. Could she recapture her championship form? And what about the top two Americans? Emma Coburn {the 2017 world champion; the 2019 world championship silver medalist; and the Rio Olympics bronze medalist] and Courtney Frerichs [the American record holder and the '17 world champion runner-up]. Both moved on smartly in the opening round and established themselves as medal threats. With 8 of the top 9 world-ranked athletes toeing the starting line for the final, the women's 3000m steeplechase was seen as a wide-open event.

Not surprisingly, the championship race started slowly as the 16 finalists accorded due respect to their opponents and the challenging weather conditions. With the Americans nestled in the middle of the pack, Chepkoech and Kenya's Hyvin Kiyeng rushed to the front. Before long, unheralded Ugandan Peruth Chemutai took over the lead as she led the finalists through 1 kilometer in 3:05 with Coburn and Frerichs closely tucked in behind the leader.

Halfway through the race, an unexpected surge took place. Frerichs unfurled a pace change - not a desperate bolt, but a strong and steady tempo increase that thrust her into the lead. With the American record holder steadily extending her advantage, the others were forced to consider: "Do I think she'll fade? Or must I take up the chase?" Before Frerich's lead got too out of hand, only Chemutai elected to go after the American. Frerich's tempo did not waver, but the Ugandan pursuer was steadily reeling her back in. Chemutai, unranked among the top ten steeplechasers on this year's world list, eventually pulled even with former University of New Mexico star with about 250 meters remaining and then pushed into the lead.

A swift and clean final water jump clearance by the Ugandan extended her expanding margin as she then raced to the line unchallenged without incident to capture the gold, crossing 1st in a new Ugandan national record time of 9:01.45, and becoming the first Ugandan woman to win an Olympic medal of any color in any sport. Frerichs, whose daring race strategy set the entire tone of this final, crossed 2nd for the silver in 9:04.79.

Both the American and the Ugandan took risks racing the final as they did: Frerichs in taking on the dangerous task of insuring an honest race pace; and Chemutai in electing to chase the American after her surprise mid-race surge. While there are many of examples of such prompt decisions failing, on this day the gold and silver medalists met the challenge posed by their split-second decisions and were rewarded with Olympic medals.

Kiyeng, the Rio silver medalist in the steeple, finished 3rd in 9:05,39 to add another Olympic medal to her trophy case. Chepkoech, 4th in Rio's steeplechase final, finished 7th as the Doha world champion clocked 9:16.33. American steepler Valerie Constien finished 12th in 9:31.61.

Two additional national records were set in today's final. Marusa Mismas-Zrimsek clocked 9:14.84 to finish 6th and set a new national record for Slovenia. And former Princeton athlete Elizabeth "Lizzy" Bird finished 9th in 9:19.68 to set a new national record for Great Britain.

Coburn had a terrible time of it. The silver medalist in the Rio steeple final faded badly during the second half of the race, fell down during the final lap, finished last, and ultimately was disqualified. "I felt good for the first 2 kilometers, and I really wanted to slam it home like I did at the trials and in Doha," said Coburn during her post-race exchange with the media. "I just couldn't keep up with that move that Courtney threw down, and my body just shut down. My last 600 meters, it took everything I had to stay on the track."

After the race both the gold and silver medalists shared their thoughts. "I thought about going in the front of the race, but the American girl (Frerichs) came in front," said the new Olympic champion. "With 500m [remaining], I just decided to go, and I went hard until the finish," Chemutai said.

Frerichs revealed that her mid-race surge was pre-planned. "I was prepared to have to take it early lead and make it a hard race," explained the silver medalist. "It's really difficult to put yourself out there like that and I definitely had some fear to overcome but I knew I'd walk away with no regrets if I really laid it all out there. I definitely ran the kick out of my own legs. I was obviously hoping to hold on for the win but I'm super happy about it and have no regrets. This is an absolute dream come true. I grew up doing gymnastics as a kid and always watching the Olympic Games hoping one day that I would be there. Now to have a medal, it's just more than I can ask for." / Dave Hunter /

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