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As predicted, it was a race for third place in the 3,000-meter steeplechase final on Thursday, at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials, in Eugene, Oregon. And for Val Constien, third probably felt a lot like first.
Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs were the known entities. They’ve never missed making a national team in the event and their results on Thursday were no different. Coburn won in an Olympic Trials record of 9:09.41 and Frerichs was runner-up in 9:11.79. Then came Constien, a University of Colorado grad and 2019 Pac-12 champion, in 9:18.34—a personal best by six seconds.
“I think the U.S. steeple right now is the deepest it’s been in years,” Coburn said, after the race. “There’s so many women who have run under 9:30 this year. Knowing that strength and that depth, I wanted to just play off some of some of my strengths. If we were running 9:30 splits early in the race, I knew that was well within my comfort zone and I could push really hard the last two laps.”
Since 2016, the U.S. team for world championships and the Olympics has remained constant: Coburn, Frerichs, and Colleen Quigley. And until Quigley announced her withdrawal from the race due to injury just days ago, many assumed the trio would make Team USA once again.
Quigley’s absence opened up an array of possibilities for a field that included eight athletes who had the Olympic qualifying time already (9:30). Until 800 meters to go, it looked like Leah Falland might have had a lock on the podium, but she caught a toe on a barrier and fell to the track. Although she got back up quickly and regained position, the combination of adrenaline and trying to regain position was too much. She had nothing left in the last 200 meters and placed ninth.
“I was just really cooked after all of it,” Falland said, in an emotional post-race interview. When asked how confident she was that she could have made the team, she said, “I knew I could do it. I knew it was in there. It was kind of shocking, to be honest. I worked really, really hard to get back to a place where I could contend for that team.”
When Constien saw Falland stumble, she recognized she had an opportunity.
“I kind of knew that was my shot…and then with 400 meters to go, I just ran as hard as I possibly could,” Constien said. “I had no idea where [Falland] was…I just gave it my all.”
Frerichs, 28, was analytical about her race, already identifying what she wants to work on between now and competing at the Tokyo Games. A member of the Bowerman Track Club, she’s the American record holder (9:00.85) and 2017 world championships silver medalist in the event, as well as 2016 Olympian. She said her second-to-last water barrier needs work, as well as her closing speed.
“I think we’re bringing an incredibly strong team [to Tokyo],” Frerichs said. “I mean, it took 9:18 to make the team today. That’s the fastest third-place finish that’s ever happened. That’s incredible. And then I think that Emma and I have consistently been battling up at the front and that force together makes a statement. We’re ready to have a special moment in Tokyo.”
Coburn, 30, is the 2017 world champion and the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, the first American woman to medal in the steeple. She and Joe Bosshard, her husband and coach, have created a Boulder, Colorado-based training group that includes Cory McGee, who just qualified for the Tokyo Games in the 1500 meters.
Constien is a first-time Olympian who works a full-time customer support job for Stryd, a company that makes power meters that runners put on their shoes to figure out the optimal training intensity. She receives free apparel from TrackSmith but otherwise self-funds her running career, including paying her way to Eugene to compete at the Trials.
“I think that being a blue-collar runner is really cool. Anybody with a full-time job can still have Olympic aspirations,” she said.
Training in Boulder, Constien often runs with Jenny Simpson. She ran the Olympic qualifying time at the Portland Track Festival at the end of May. It was then that she realized it wasn’t enough to just make it to the final—she wanted to make it to Tokyo.
“It just seems like three weeks ago I woke up and said, ‘I could do this,’” Constien said. “So it was really fun. Goals change and dreams get bigger, so I’m really happy that this has happened.”
Editor’s Note: This story is part of our 2021 U.S.A. Track & Field Olympic Trials coverage. You can find all of our stories here.