Three US Women Steeplers Could Make World Finals

By Chris Lotsbom, @ChrisLotsbom
(c) 2015 Race Results Weekly, all rights reserved
(Used with permission)

EUGENE,OR, USA (24-Jun) -- There's an old adage that says a rising
tide lifts all boats. That metaphor could be used to describe the
women's 3000m steeplechase, which is at the strongest level it's
ever been here in the United States. At the USA Outdoor Track & Field
Championships here in Eugene, nine women with personal bests under
9:36 are set to toe theline, led by three-time national champion Emma Coburn.

Having run an American best of 9:11.42* last year, Coburn is the
overwhelming favorite entering the meet, a seasoned veteran to
championship racing.Of the last four national championships,
Coburn's won three titles, theonly blemish being when she did not
compete in 2013 due to injury.

Not having lost to an American in the event since the preliminary rounds of the 2011 national championships, Coburn is confident heading into this weekend despite not having raced over barriers yet this year. However, she knows that this may be the toughest national field she's ever faced.

"Even though I've won USA's and it's been four or five years since I lost to an American, I don't count out any of the other Americans," Coburn told the media, speaking at a pre-meet press conference in downtown Eugene.

Competitive on the international level, Coburn is expected to contend for a medal at this year's IAAF World Championships in Beijing. Yet her prowess in the event is just a sign of the times in America, a glimpse of the resurgence in the discipline on U.S. soil.

In 2008, Jenny Simpson (at the time Jenny Barringer) and Anna Willard led a strong American showing at the first Olympic 3000m steeplechase contested for women, finishing ninth and 10th in the final. Since then, the red, white, and blue have improved steadily. When Simpson transitioned from the steeplechase to the 1500 meters in 2009, she passed the torch on to Coburn, a fellow University of Colorado alum who also trains under coaches Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs. Coburn has led the way for the next generation of American steeplers ever since.

Here today, Coburn touched upon how far the discipline has come in the past four years, with athletes like Stephanie Garcia, Ashley Higginson, and Nicole Bush running in the 9:25-range consistently. In the collegiate ranks, a trifecta of talent was on full display right here at Hayward Field two weeks ago at the NCAA Championships, when Florida State's Colleen Quigley, UMKC's Courtney Frerichs, and Michigan State's Leah O'Connor pushed to podium finishes with personal best marks of 9:29.32, 9:31.36, and 9:33.38, respectively.

Throw in Olympians Bridget Franek and Shalaya Kipp and you have a steeplechase field that trumps any in U.S. history. On Thursday, the preliminary rounds of the steeplechase will be contested, with the final coming on Saturday afternoon.

"Domestically, the women's steeplechase is the strongest it's ever been. We have several women who have 'A' standards in other events, and I think that proves that they're not just good steeplechasers but very good runners all around," Coburn said, specifically praising the rising collegians. "The competition domestically is just going to get better and better."

Coburn can be seen as a catalyst of sorts in the event. From her first national title in 2011 (won in 9:44.11), to last year's crown (claimed in a very fast 9:19.72 despite searing conditions in Sacramento), Coburn's winning times are indicative of what it now takes to be national champion.

"It's motivating. I can't ever settle," she said. "From 2011 to 2015, the time it took to win dropped massively and I think that's exciting." She added: "Like I said, I can't settle and they are right there, so it's fun to have a competitive group of women that can be competitive on the world scale."

Reflecting on how she's progressed in the steeplechase, Coburn gives credit to coaches Wetmore and Burroughs. From the day she stepped onto the University of Colorado campus in Boulder, the pair worked to make Coburn the best all around athlete possible. In cross country they focused on strength work, building a strong base. During the indoor season they fine tuned her speed, always working on the mile distance. And when the outdoor season rolled around, only then would Coburn get to begin steeplechase-specific training.

The methodical approach --to build strength and speed before introducing barriers and steeplechase technique-- is why Coburn is able to shine in a variety of disciplines. For example, she ran 4:05.10 for 1500m at this year's Prefontaine Classic 1500m.

"They do a really great job of developing the steeplechasers into all around athletes," she said, specifically bringing up Simpson's 2009 season, when she ran 3:59.90 for 1500m and an American record of 9:12.50 for the steeplechase. "I need to be a 8:40 or 8:45 flat-3000m runner to be successful in the steeplechase, and I think that's where more of their focus lies. It's just developing us as good runners in general."

When looking at the field at this year's USATF Championships, Coburn recognizes that all of the top entrants are similar athletes to her. Many have succeeded in the past in cross country, run fast mile or 1500m times on the oval, and posses fine hurdle skills needed to clear steeplechase barriers. A combination of these talents can be lethal on the world stage. (A prime example is Michigan State's O'Connor, who won an NCAA Cross Country team title last year, finished first in the NCAA Indoor Championships mile, and finished third at the NCAA Outdoor Championships steeplechase despite suffering from a nasty fall a day before.)

Yet Coburn knows it's not all physical. The mental approach to the discipline has shifted as well.
In past years, Americans would line up next to far superior Kenyans, Ethiopians, and Russians, knowing that their overseas rivals would likely run away with titles. Coburn now laces up her New Balance spikes with the confidence that she can compete and defeat many of the world's top steeplers, no matter their nationality.

"For me it's about running aggressively and not necessarily being intimidated by them," she said. "Domestically I think it's a bit more fierce and internationally I'm feeling a little bit more at home racing those women."

Even with Aisha Praught deciding to compete for Jamaica instead of the USA (she had run 9:34.69 for the steeplechase last year, and would have also contended for a spot on the World Championships squad), Team USA still looks like it has the ability to field three finalists for the World Championships steeplechase.

On both Thursday and Saturday, Coburn knows she will need to work hard to maintain her top spot in the U.S. She's using the wave of improved steeplers as motivation to keep pushing.

"It's fun to watch," she said. "I hope that I can come away with another USA title, but the real priority is to just make the team and be one of those three spots."

*Coburn's time was not ratified as an American record because she was not selected for an in-competition drug test on the day of the performance

PHOTO: Emma Coburn in advance of the 2015 USA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in Eugene, Ore.

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