How Steeplechaser Courtney Frerichs Keeps Composure at the Olympics
She’s a world championships silver medalist, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t get nervous.
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Courtney Frerichs is the fastest U.S. woman in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, setting the American record in the event (9:00.85) at the 2018 Monaco Diamond League meet. She’s still in search of that national title, however—she and Emma Coburn have been duking it out for years at the championship meets.
In fact, Coburn andFrerichs continue to dominate the steeple, though the bar has been raised substantially since the race became an official Olympic event for women in 2008. It takes a special distance athlete to run 3,000 meters as fast as possible while hurdling 28 barriers and seven water jumps, but more women are choosing it at the NCAA level. In fact, at the NCAA outdoor championships this year, it was more difficult to make the final round (9:42) than get the Olympic Trials qualifying time (9:50).
RELATED: After a Year of Big Changes, Colleen Quigley Will Make Her Season Steeple Debut at the Trials
Frerichs opened up her season on May 9 at the Golden Games, to reacquaint herself with the racing routine after an 18-month pandemic layoff from steepling. She won (surprisingly, it was her first pro career win) in 9:27.70, then came back to win the Portland Track Festival steeple a few weeks later in 9:21.13. Ultimately she placed second at the Olympic Trials, behind Coburn and ahead of Valerie Constein.
The season has been a bit of redemption from the 2019 world championships, where Frerichs thought she underperformed (she placed sixth). In 2017, she was the world championships silver medalist in the same race Coburn won gold.
“My last steeple [before the pandemic] was just kind of a disappointment and I felt like there was a dark cloud hanging a little bit over me,” Frerichs says. “So running that first one this season was just about getting back out there and reminding myself, I know how to do this event. It’s one of those events that you really want to try to run a couple before you go race the Trials—you want to learn how to take the barriers in a pack again.”
A lot has changed since Frerichs made the 2016 Olympic team—mostly, the event has become a lot faster thanks to the trio, which also includes a currently injured Colleen Quigley, pushing each other at the top.
“You have the three of us running 9:10 or faster, so that’s been really exciting to see that growth,” Frerichs says. “But competition is always going to bring the best out of you, so at the end of the day, I think having more people pushing us is always going to be better for the event.”
And while it may look like an easy race to predict on paper most of the time, the steeplechase also has a lot of room for error and disaster.
“No matter who you are…with the steeple I don’t think you ever have it secured, because it’s one of those events that things happen,” Frerichs says. “People fall and things like that. It’s a reminder that everything always has to be taken seriously.”
You can watch Frerichs, Coburn, and Constein compete in the first round of the steeplechase at the Tokyo Olympics at 9:25 p.m. Eastern on July 31. The final is at 7 a.m. Eastern on August 4.
Hometown: Portland, Oregon
Event/PR: 3,000-meter steeplechase (9:00.85, American record)
Training tip: When you train among some of the world’s best women at the Bowerman Track Club, it’s easy to feel like you fall short on occasion (even if you are, in fact, also one of the world’s best). Frerichs finds a sense of calm by looking inward instead of comparing herself to her training partners.
“You could be in the best training program in the world and if you don’t believe in it, it’s not going to work. After 2017 I really started to feel like everything had to go perfectly in order to get back to what I’d done [at the world championships],” Frerichs says. “[Coach] Jerry [Schumacher] told me that all he ever wanted was for me to show up and be the very best Courtney I could be that day—that is all he could ask for. It really helped me to focus more on getting the most out of each day for myself, versus feeling like I had to look like somebody else.”
Favorite workout: It should come as no surprise that Frerichs likes to jump over hurdles and barriers whenever the opportunity arises, but that would take too much of a toll on her body if she did it too much. That doesn’t mean there aren’t some steeple-specific sessions on the schedule, though.
“I really like doing four by a mile, combined with something a little faster at the end like some 300s or 400s. You hit the strength, plus a little bit of speed at the end,” she says. “Every two weeks or so we’ll do a workout that has four hurdles and then the water jump, just to get used to taking the number of hurdles you’ll need in a race. Your body gets adjusted to the impact, then add a little more distance.”
The worst part of race day: Frerichs describes herself as a “nervous person.” Her dad always emphasized to her that it just means she cares, which is a good thing.
“In some of my really key workouts, I also work on the mindset that I want to have on race day and having key words to remember. One of the big workouts that I just had recently, my key word was, ‘composure,’” she says. “So, you know what? That’s something I want to have…I want to feel composed going into the end of the race. But nerves definitely are the worst part of race day.”
The best part of race day: As soon as the gun goes off, Frerichs loves that her body just knows what to do from there. Those nerves vanish.
“Those moments before the gun goes off, you’re just like, ‘Oh my gosh,’” she says. “But then once you’re in the race, it feels really good; it’s when you feel like everything is coming together. Even on hard days, being out there and executing is the always the fun part.”
Defining success: At the 2019 world championships, the results didn’t come together as Frerichs had wanted, finishing sixth in 9:11.27. But she still had positive takeaways from the experience.
“You can’t control what anyone else is going to do, so I had to really remember to ask if I was my best self that day. And the answer was, I stuck to my race plan, so yes. I committed to what I wanted to do,” she says. “Other people were better than me that day, so the biggest measure of success is, did I do everything I could to get on the line, have a chance, and execute to my full ability? And as long as you walk away feeling like that was the case, you can be happy with the result.”
Last words to herself on the starting line: Aside from the words she comes up with in workouts, like “composure,” Frerichs has other mantras depending on her focus. In 2017, her word was “fearless.” In 2018, it was, “let yourself run,” to remind herself not to overthink it.
“I’ve found that to really help, particularly in the middle of those really hard workouts, to come back to those key words,” she says. “When you get to race day, you’ve been there before.”
Sage advice: Allow the people in your circle to elevate and challenge you.
“Surrounding myself with like-minded people who are pushing me has been key in my pro career,” Frerichs says. “They have strengths that I don’t have and that’s allowed me to really embrace my weaknesses versus being like, ‘OK, I’m doing this on my own, so I’ve just got to focus on what I’m good at.’ It’s a lot easier to embrace the weaknesses when you’re pushed by other people.”
Pandemic pastimes: Aside from copious amounts of Schitt’s Creek binging, Frerichs also started taking classes in the fall to study nutrition.
“That really helped me get through the last year, working toward something else while there were just so many unknowns,” she says. “I was able to have goals completely outside of running, in addition to training.”
Editor’s Note: This article was part of a series leading up to the 2021 U.S.A. Track & Field Olympic Trials, highlighting many of the top athletes contending for the U.S. Olympic team. It has been edited and updated for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. You can find all of our coverage here.