Two days removed from her historic first-place finish in the steeplechase final at the IAAF World Championships in London, and Emma Coburn still says it’s unbelievable. She ran a new American record, breaking her own, in 9:02.58 to earn the U.S. its first steeplechase medal ever on the world stage.
She knew the Kenyan athletes had run much faster than she had all year, so it was a gamble to try and keep up with them—a risk she was obviously willing and able to take. After matching their surges through the middle kilometers, Coburn says she felt strong the whole way and, with two laps to go, was waiting for that final water jump to make her move…a move that boosted her into the lead off the final turn.
“It wasn’t until 80 meters to go that I thought, Wow I’m going to win. Once I cleared that last barrier, I kind of realized what was happening,” Coburn says. “Honestly I kept waiting for someone to come up and challenge me. But I was feeling strong and kind of kept another gear in case someone was going to challenge me in the last 100.”
That extra gear powered the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist to her historic victory, becoming the first American to snag steeple gold on a global stage* since 1952. And what sweetened an already magical moment was that fellow Team USA teammate Courtney Frerichs came in an astonishing second—a 1-2 U.S. performance that hasn’t happened here or at the Olympics since 1912. Frerichs, who finished 11th in Rio last year, shaved a whopping 16 seconds off her previous personal best, crossing behind Coburn in 9:03.77, holding off third place by less than a second! Their times now make them the sixth and seventh fastest in world history.
“We just kept saying, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe it.’ We couldn’t believe it was real and we were getting to share this moment together,” Coburn says. They shared a touching, emotional moment hugging on the ground across the finish line, which has now become the iconic image of the championships. “We were both tired too; right after I crossed the line I turned around and saw her and hugged her. She was so tired, she kind of started to fall down, and I wasn’t strong enough to hold her up, so we both went down to the ground. But I wasn’t finished hugging so I ended up kind of tackling her and we ended up laying there for a few moments and just both feeling really grateful.”
And track fans across the country cried along with them, including Coburn’s sister, Gracie, who was caught on video screaming and jumping up and down at the TV when she realized what was happening. Coburn says seeing that video made her smile, because she knows the emotions that pour into cheering for someone you care about.
“I knew exactly the emotions that she had, we all had. It’s more nerve-racking, to be honest, to watch someone you care about race than it is to race yourself. When I would watch friends race, or when my fiance would race, I would have such anxiety and such stress and feel like you don’t have any control. So I knew exactly how she was feeling, so it was sweet.”
Coburn’s tremendous race follows a stellar Olympic year, where she captured bronze, the first Olympic medal for the U.S. since the event opened up to women in 2008. She was also featured in ESPN’s annual Body Issue last summer. Her demeanor, which always appears relaxed and patient during her races, strong form and impressive running resume have become a collective symbol of strength and dedication among female athletes. “I’ve always seen myself as an athlete and never compared myself in a negative way to the boys. If I boy can do that, I can do that,” Coburn says of her work ethic. “I’ve always considered myself an athlete and knew I could do whatever I set myself out to do. So it’s fun to help share that message through my racing and things like the Body Issue.”
With Tokyo 2020 at top of mind in the next 12 months for many, there are no plans for Coburn to slow down the momentum she’s built for herself. While her accomplishments on the track stack higher than most as is, she still has two more goals left to check off.
“I think running under 9 minutes** and winning an Olympic gold medal would be the next things on the agenda. I think if I can stay healthy and race with confidence and just get after it, I think it’s possible.”
We have to agree with that.
*Global stage refers to any running event where countries come together to compete, such at the Olympics or the world championships.
**The women’s world record in the steeplechase is 8:52.78.