When the IAAF announced in November that it would be cutting five events from the Diamond League schedule in 2020—one of which is the steeplechase—Emma Coburn, the 2019 world championship silver medalist and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, was quick to voice her disappointment.
“It’s been my event for 12 years and I have given a lot of my time and effort in not only racing the Diamond Leagues, but helping to promote it. It feels like a bit of a slap in the face when you’re no longer important enough to be on the broadcast.”
But it’s not just Coburn’s personal feelings that led to her position on the decision. In fact, in talking to her about nearly anything you quickly realize she’s usually factoring in far more than just herself.
Of sponsors, Coburn says: “I have a sponsor [New Balance] that values me wholeheartedly 365 days a year, not just thinking of me racing on TV, but the Diamond League races are some of the only international races that we get to compete in in our sponsor kit not in the country kit, and that opportunity is gone.”
And of her competitors, she adds: “For my international peers who might not have as great of a personal sponsorship as I do, the prize money and travel funding that they get for those races is a huge part of their livelihood. The prize money alone and the Diamond League final—$50,000 for the win—that is gone, and who knows if [IAAF] will find a way to replace that or not.”
These days, emotion-fueled and often-polarizing commentary on current events can feel like they create power—or at the very least, noise. But the loudest microphone does not always make the strongest or most compelling argument, and it seems that while Coburn does not hesitate to speak her mind, she also realizes that sometimes power comes from staying calm and not reacting.
“I was asked about what athletes can do now, and to be honest, I think it’s all fresh and I don’t have an answer and I don’t have a game plan, yet,” she says. “Whenever news breaks people get so charged. I was certainly hurt by it and still am hurt. But I think it’s important to take your time to make a decision to make a good plan and that’s not just based on emotion but it’s based on facts and logic. I don’t want to jump into anything too quickly until I really learned everything there is to know, and I’m still trying to get information, so I don’t really have an answer for that yet.”
That mindful reserve and big-picture perspective have no doubt led to her leadership position within the sport and her dominance in it. The consistency she has had, her time progressions over the years, her ability to keep showing up—it’s all led Coburn to feel that anything but top three is now a bit unacceptable.
“It’s been a long journey and I feel like I’ve paid my dues in a way but continue to learn and grow and adapt as an athlete physically and mentally, and I feel like I’m ready for anything,” she says. “It’s the expectation to podium but it’s not the overwhelming pressure. It’s confidence knowing I’ve done that work to earn that expectation, and to earn that pressure.”
From her words and actions and even the company she keeps, the success and power Coburn has built stems from one thing: thoughtfulness. “I think you have to be intentional with your life,” she says. “You have to make choices and make decisions that create that happiness. It’s not just going to land in your lap. I was lucky, I was born into a family that’s very supportive and loving. I didn’t choose that, I was born into that, but basically the rest of my life it’s been choices. I’m choosing the route of happiness but also the route that is challenging me to be the best version of me both as an athlete and as a person, and I owe a lot of that to the people around me.”
This profile was first published in the January/February 2020 print issue of Women’s Running as part of “Front Runners: 20 Power Women of 2020” which celebrates 20 elite female runners who are giving power new meaning, and a new image. You can see the full list of honorees here.