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Olympics

How Women’s Track and Field Fought Their Way Into the Olympics—by Staging Their Own

After facing rejection after rejection, how a group of women around the world banded together to start the Women's Olympic Games.


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Emma Coburn is Ready to Take Charge in Tokyo


Before the world was saying “COVID,” and Olympic hopefuls were hearing “canceled,” world champion steeplechaser Emma Coburn was dealt a different c-word: “Cancer.”

In December 2019, her mom, Annie Coburn, was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer, news that rocked her tight-knit family.

Just a few months before, Coburn, 30, had run a personal best of 9:02.35 to take silver in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar. The 2016 Olympic bronze medalist was looking ready to add another medal to her collection the following summer in Tokyo. And just like that, her world was turned upside down.

“I live a very charmed life. My parents spoil me, I have a really amazing husband, I have great friends, great family; I’ve been generally injury-free and I’ve had a successful career,” says Coburn. “I’ve had a couple other hard things pop up here and there, but this was the first big thing that I had to tackle. If I saw someone else going through this, I think I would expect them to crumble because it is such a heavy weight.”

But there wasn’t time for that. As her mom began the first of what would be many rounds of chemo, Coburn did her best to stay focused. After all, the Olympics hadn’t been canceled yet (that would happen in March 2020). But as their family would learn, cancer doesn’t move in a straight or predictable path. “There would be days where it would be bad news and we would be really sad,” Coburn says. “But [my husband] Joe kept reminding me, as did my parents, that the thing that brings my mom the most joy is my running; that’s my contribution to her joy.”

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