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At some point soon, Courtney Frerichs will take a step back and let it all sink in. How she won the silver medal in the Olympic 3,000-meter steeplechase. The moment she became the first American woman to break nine minutes. And maybe she’ll top it off with a first Diamond League win in Zurich. That’s to be determined, but it’d be a fairytale ending to her dream track season.
Frerichs, 28, knows she’s achieved a lot this summer, but until she’s visiting her friends and family back in Nixa, Missouri, none it seems particularly real. For now, the silver medal from Tokyo is in a box on the dining room table in Portland, Oregon, making the rounds to everybody who wants a glimpse.
“I’m slowly getting some perspective on it, but being at the Olympics almost felt like we were in this alternate universe because it was just us—nobody else was there,” Frerichs said. “And then I had to refocus so quickly on Pre.”
That’s the Prefontaine Classic, the only Diamond League meet that takes place on U.S. soil, at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. Two weeks after the Tokyo Games, Frerichs placed second there, in a new American record of 8:57.77, replacing her old record of 9:00.85.
But before she calls it a season (a very long season), Frerichs is planning to race the Diamond League final on September 9, in Zurich. If she wins that race she will automatically qualify for the 2022 world championships, which would mean that four U.S. women would qualify for the event instead of the typical three—an exciting prospect for a championships that will take place back at Hayward Field, beginning July 15, 2022.
“One more steeple. I’ll throw myself in the mix,” she said.
Frerichs took a little time during a recent phone interview to reflect on the Olympics, the performance at the Pre Classic, and what led to her confidence and success in 2021.
On mustering the will to keep racing after the Olympics.
The Olympians had their eyes on Tokyo for five long years. Who could blame any of them for calling an end to this season’s competition after the flame was extinguished? Frerichs was among the medalists who has opted to keep going.
“It’s challenging. I haven’t really raced post-championships as a pro very much,” she said. “I think we did a really good job of taking it one race at a time, so it never felt overwhelming. I was all-in on one race and then we’d reassess when it was done.”
After getting home from Tokyo, Frerichs admits she had a “strong desire” to just celebrate.
“But there was such an opportunity at Pre, I knew I couldn’t let that pass by,” she said. “I told myself, ‘Physically, you’re still ready to go, you just have to get your head in the right place.’”
But heading into Zurich, already having achieved the goals she set for herself this season, she needed to figure out a new objective to get herself motivated.
“It’s exciting that there’s that fourth spot on the line if I could come away with the win,” Frerichs said. “And also continue to practice this mindset I’ve had in my approach to racing—I’ve struggled to consistently put myself in it every time. There’s so many races you look at and I’m kind of in the middle or off the back or trying to force the race to play out in the perfect way I had envisioned in my head.”
On becoming the first American woman to break nine minutes in the steeplechase.
Frerichs came to Pre with one mission—a mission that she and Emma Coburn, the 2017 world champion in the steeple, have simultaneously chased for years: break nine minutes. Until August 22, Frerichs had come closest, setting the previous American record (9:00.85) at the 2018 Monaco Diamond League meet.
“A lot of times for these big time barriers, it takes the right race and being in it,” Frerichs said. “Looking at the field, the weather was really nice, and we knew people were fit because we were coming off the Olympics. I knew the opportunity would be there.”
But in the past, when Frerichs had focused solely on perfect pacing, it has never worked out for her. So she went into it with different goals, like competing for the win. She knew if she put herself with the leaders, she’d likely get the result she was looking for.
“I was surprised it went out as fast as it did—I thought it would be a second or two slower—but I was glad I just went for it at the beginning,” she said. “I felt confident that if I put the emphasis on competing, the time would come.”
With about 400 meters to go, Frerichs liked her chances.
“I was like, ‘I’m going to do this today,’” she said. “That was the first time I let my mind register the clock. I felt really strong.”
And after more than a year without big, loud crowds cheering at any track meets, she appreciated that the spectators at Hayward were there for extra encouragement.
“I didn’t realize how much I missed that element of it all, just how fun it is to share it with so many people who are passionate about the sport and get excited about these performances,” Frerichs said. “I almost got so used to no spectators or very small events that getting the opportunity was so much more incredible than I remember it.”
On relishing success.
Before thinking about what’s next, Frerichs has learned to take a moment to enjoy the present. In the past, she’s first thought about what she needs to improve, rather than reflecting on what she’s accomplished.
“One thing I’m going to let myself do first is be proud of the accomplishments,” she said. “When I won silver in 2017 [at the world championships] it was automatically picking apart what I could do better, instead of thinking ‘Wow, I just won a silver medal. I should be really happy right now.’”
While striving to do better and improve is what makes great athletes even better, Frerichs also has come to recognize that you don’t know how many great moments you get in one professional career, either.
“If you’re always looking to the next thing, you could get to the end and realize that you just constantly told yourself that you were never enough,” she said. “That wasn’t the healthiest way to approach things early on in my career.”
That said, she’d like to improve her “best résumé of second-place finishes” that likely exists in the women’s steeplechase.
“Winning a Diamond League or winning a U.S. championship or contending to win a world championship—I want to keep pushing for that moment,” Frerichs said. “If I keep putting myself in contention, who knows? One day that could happen.”
On developing courage.
It was Frerichs who forced the race at the 2021 Olympic final and it took a lot of fans by surprise. She made the move with 1200 meters to go, surging ahead and gapping the field and for a while it seemed like her competitors were just letting her go—until the bell lap when eventual gold medalist Peruth Chemutai of Uganda caught her with 200 meters left.
But stepping up to the lead on the world’s biggest stage is the ultimate show of bravery. Where did Frerichs find it?
“It came down to a mantra that my therapist and I had decided. My word was ‘belong’ for this race which I wore on my wrist,” she said. “When I took the lead, that’s what I told myself: ‘You belong here.’”
She also derived inspiration from watching the 2016 men’s steeplechase in Rio, when her Bowerman Track Club teammate Evan Jager won silver.
“It has stuck with me for the last five years. I walked away from it thinking ‘I want to have a moment like that in my career,’” Frerichs said. “He took control of the race and it was so inspiring to me. So when [coach] Jerry [Schumacher] gave me a very similar plan, I just felt like it was my time to have that kind of moment.”
And one more vote of confidence came from her now-coach Shalane Flanagan, who is the 2008 Olympic silver medalist in the 10,000 meters. She sent a text to Frerichs the morning of the final, reminding her that the plan might be scary, but if she executed it, she’d leave Tokyo satisfied.
“[Shalane’s text] said that she woke up with butterflies because she was so excited about the race and she was like, ‘I know you’re nervous, but just know if you make a move like this, I’m so confident that you’ll walk away with no regrets regardless of what happens,’” Frerichs said. “The Olympic Games are not a time to be scared. It’s a time to really put it out there and see what you’re capable of.”
On athletes inspiring athletes.
After Molly Seidel won the bronze medal in the marathon, she gave credit to Frerichs and the way she had executed her silver-medal-winning race for inspiring her courage, too.
“That’s what’s so cool about these major championships—you get so excited about and invested in Team USA,” Frerichs said. “In 2017 I remember watching Kori Carter win the 400-meter hurdles out of lane nine. The determination she had to just go for something, that was so cool. I walked away from that thinking you can step it up even if on paper you’re not supposed to win a medal.”
The top U.S. distance runners have been raising the bar steadily for at least five years. And competitors like Frerichs feed off the momentum, she said.
“We have this attitude of like, ‘I can do that, too,’” Frerichs said. “Using all these performances as inspiration to push ourselves further and set our goals higher is pushing us forward. It’s super exciting to be a part of that.”
On weathering her training group’s turbulence this year.
It’s no secret that the Bowerman Track Club has been through some challenges this year. Some members, like steeplechaser Colleen Quigley, have left the group. Others, like Jager, have faced injuries and setbacks at a key time in their careers. And then Frerichs’s friend and training partner Shelby Houlihan tested positive for nandrolone and received a four-year ban from competition (Frerichs served as a witness on behalf of Houlihan in the Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing).
All pro groups go through difficulties, which can add stress to a year that’s already high-pressure. How do those shifting dynamics influence training and racing?
“It’s certainly been a really up-and-down year and I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t impacted all of us,” Frerichs said. “But I think it’s also made us turn to relying and trusting one another and remembering that if there are changes, at the end of the day we want so badly for the other person to be happy and successful.”
Despite the challenges this year, the team is also what has allowed Frerichs to flourish, she said.
“It’s made me trust my circle even more,” Frerichs said. “I wouldn’t change who I surround myself with.”