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Before the world was saying “COVID,” and Olympic hopefuls were hearing “canceled,” world champion steeplechaser Emma Coburn was dealt a different c-word: “Cancer.”
In December 2019, her mom, Annie Coburn, was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer, news that rocked her tight-knit family.
Just a few months before, Coburn, 30, had run a personal best of 9:02.35 to take silver in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2019 world championships in Doha, Qatar. The 2016 Olympic bronze medalist was looking ready to add another medal to her collection the following summer in Tokyo. And just like that, her world was turned upside down.
“I live a very charmed life. My parents spoil me, I have a really amazing husband, I have great friends, great family; I’ve been generally injury-free and I’ve had a successful career,” says Coburn. “I’ve had a couple other hard things pop up here and there, but this was the first big thing that I had to tackle. If I saw someone else going through this, I think I would expect them to crumble because it is such a heavy weight.”
But there wasn’t time for that. As her mom began the first of what would be many rounds of chemo, Coburn did her best to stay focused. After all, the Olympics hadn’t been canceled yet (that would happen in March 2020). But as their family would learn, cancer doesn’t move in a straight or predictable path. “There would be days where it would be bad news and we would be really sad,” Coburn says. “But [my husband] Joe kept reminding me, as did my parents, that the thing that brings my mom the most joy is my running; that’s my contribution to her joy.”
That perspective gave Coburn’s training cycle a completely new focus. She was working for more than medals at this point; she was doing it for her mom. That made it easier to flip the switch when it was time to practice. She wasn’t going to let her sadness be an excuse to slack off.
“What makes me a good athlete is I really only worry about the things I can control, and I think I was able to handle my mom’s cancer the same way,” she says. “I am not a doctor. I can not create a new chemo cocktail that will cure her. My mom was doing her part, fighting and going through chemo treatments. My siblings have kids and they bring joy in other ways. My dad is a super supportive partner for her. So I’m going to control what I can control, and that entails me running well and spending more time in Crested Butte.”
That fortitude and forward momentum didn’t surprise her mom. Annie has been watching her daughter in action for the past 10 years as a professional runner and has seen that strength time and again. “She can marshal all that emotion and harness that energy and use it, versus there’s people that you know they’re so good and you know they can run so fast and you see them and then they just collapse in a moment of pressure,” Annie says. “And she just doesn’t choke. She just holds it together. I don’t know how she does it.”
Especially considering that wasn’t always the case. Coburn wasn’t your typical childhood phenom. “Emma was a momma’s girl,” Annie says. “She would hang on my leg and shy away from looking at you. She was just really so sweet and so lovey dovey and not competitive.”
Born in Boulder, Colorado, the family moved to the small mountain town of Crested Butte when Coburn was 7 years old. By middle school, she was a three-sport athlete—cross- country, hockey, and track—following in the footsteps of her older brother, Willy, and sister, Gracie. “Three kids in four years, they shared a lot of stuff,” says Annie. “She started her first track meet, I think in sixth grade, wearing Willy’s old basketball shoes—and she won. And then she just kept winning.”
While physically gifted, it took Coburn some time to find her footing on the track. “In high school, she was dropping out of races and figuring out ways to get out of stuff,” says Coburn’s husband and now coach, Joe Bosshard. The couple first met in high school in 2007, after Bosshard’s family moved to Crested Butte.“She hated it. She was a nervous wreck and really not a confident athlete at all.”
Her parents, her coach at the time, and Bosshard did everything they could to help ease Coburn along. “No one pushed her too far to where she just got overwhelmed with the whole thing,” says Bosshard. “It was just the right amount of pressure, just the right amount getting in a little over her head, working through the disappointments. But it didn’t happen overnight. It was a slow build. It probably wasn’t until her second or third year of college that she really was like, ‘Oh I’m OK at this and I should run with confidence and have big expectations.’”
Fast forward to today: Coburn is the most dominant steeplechaser this country has ever seen. She’s a nine-time national champion, winning every year since 2011 (except 2013, when she didn’t compete). She won the 2012 U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials at 21 years old, making her the youngest individual runner on Team USA at the London Olympics, where she finished eighth in the 3,000-meter steeplechase in 9:23.54. Four years later at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she set an American record (9:07.63) to win a bronze, becoming the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in the event. She went on to win the 2017 world championships (9:02.58), setting another national record (since taken by Courtney Frerichs in 9:00.85) and again making history—the first U.S. woman to win that title. And in June, after a year of waiting, Coburn won the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in a new Trials record of 9:09.41, and now looks ahead to competing against the world’s best in Tokyo.
The 3,000-meter steeplechase may be the most peculiar, if not the hardest, distance running race out there. It’s an intense compromise of strength, speed, and endurance that entails running nearly two miles at a furiously fast pace while negotiating 35 barriers—seven of them in front of a daunting water pit. Oh, and these barriers are not the lightweight aluminum hurdles that tip over when you brush your knee against them, either. At 30 inches high and 220 pounds, they are unrelenting obstacles. Clip a toe and you kiss the track. Hit your shin and, well, that’s going to leave a mark.
While men have been competing in the event since 1896, the steeplechase didn’t debut in the women’s NCAA national championships until 2001 and the Olympics until 2008. At first, college coaches weren’t willing to sacrifice their fastest runners to the obstacle course, which created a bit of a stigma—it was seen as the one you do when you can’t keep up in the ultra-competitive 1,500 meters or handle the sustained grind of the 5,000 meters.
One thing’s for sure: If you’re going to pick a crazy event like steeplechase, you can’t get rattled too easily. Nerves are a recipe for actual disaster. So how did a sweet and mostly timid child with racing anxiety happen to stumble into the hardest event and become the best in the world?
“I think I’m just very relaxed,” Coburn says. “Which is funny because I hate being late, and I am very efficient with how I do things, and I don’t think in my resting life people would describe me as a relaxed person. But in how my head and heart process running and racing and training and victory and defeat, it’s very even-keeled and relaxed.”
That’s her greatest strength as an athlete, Bosshard says: emotional control. “She can really keep herself steady. She’s probably the best athlete that I’ve ever seen at that.”
Aisha Praught-Leer, an original member of the professional training group that Bosshard and Coburn created at the end of 2016, calls Coburn “unshakeable,” with an enviable ability to create a tactical plan and stick to it—whether it’s the toast, coffee, and glass of Nuun she has every morning or the race strategy for the world championships.
“She has this ability to see what she needs to do and get it done,” Praught-Leer says. “She makes every single thing happen in a way that is really not easy, but she makes it look easy. It’s so special. I’ve rarely ever seen anything like it.”
While most high-performing athletes are plotting in four-year cycles, Coburn refuses to buy into the philosophy that the Olympics should dictate her every move. It’s a kind of present mindfulness that allows her to focus on just the next step, another important skill for a steeplechaser.
“I’m definitely a ‘live in the now’ type of athlete,” she says. “We have track competitions all the time. We have a U.S. championship every year and I want to win that every year. I want to be PRing every year.”
Another source of Coburn’s strength is the carefully curated circle of friends and family with whom she and Bosshard have chosen to surround themselves. “You’ll see it with any great athlete or CEOs, the company they keep is one of the most important things,” Bosshard says. “That’s what you have to do in this profession. There can’t be a lot of things that are pulling you away or weighing you down, adding stress. You need to be surrounded by a group—whoever, family or friends—that are right in your corner.”
In fact, “Team Boss,” their unbranded group based in Boulder, started by accident. Praught-Leer and Coburn were simultaneously looking for new coaches and training opportunities. After Coburn left her longtime college coach, Mark Wetmore, Bosshard agreed to coach her. Praught-Leer moved from the Oregon Track Club Elite in Eugene, Oregon, to Colorado to join them.
Over time, they’ve added an array of distance and middle-distance stars, like marathoner Laura Thweatt and 1500-meter specialists Cory McGee and Dani Jones. Kate Grace, 2016 Olympian in the 800 meters, is the most recent addition, defecting from the Bowerman Track Club this year.
“The biggest part of why it works is that we’re true cheerleaders for each other…we’re also able to be grounded and seek the best from each other,” Coburn says. “It’s not all fluffy B.S. stuff, it’s real. We expect greatness from each other, but we also laugh a lot and have a lot of fun together.”
It’s been nearly five years since Coburn last stood on the podium in Rio, clutching her first Olympic medal. Where she may have felt nerves in the past, now Coburn feels purpose.
“The point I’m at in my career now is I’m still just as hungry to achieve whatever goals I have, but it’s no longer the only thing I’m looking at in life,” Coburn says. “I feel a lot more grounded and peaceful. I think a lot of that just comes with age, and experience, and trust—I trust that my body and mind know what to do when I get on that starting line and I don’t have to think about it outside of that.”
And she should, because physically, she’s ready. “She’s just in a good spot as an athlete, kind of in the prime of her career,” says Bosshard. “Recovery is fast, 10 years of high-level training, not getting beat up from the workouts. You just see it—her body’s on top of it.”
As the summer unfolds, Coburn’s goals are what everybody would expect: win the U.S. Olympic Trials (done and done), break nine minutes in the steeplechase, and claim her spot on the podium in Tokyo.
“Those are the things I’m actively thinking about and working toward,” she says. “The gold, if I’m preparing and I’m checking off all those other boxes, that’s in reach. But that’s not going to be my definition of if I’m a valuable person or not.”
For better or worse, that kind of clarity of purpose is what many have gained in their own ways through this pandemic and through other personal challenges, like Annie’s cancer diagnosis. Coburn’s job now is to show courage in her running—that’s what makes her mom happy, which is more precious than any medal.
“That is something that this whole cancer journey has been so fantastic in the weirdest, ghoulish-y way. She can see the perspective. This is a joyful thing,” Annie says. “Get out there and crush it. And if you blow up, what does it matter? She has all of us and we’re not going anywhere. So enjoy it, drink it up, love it. This whole thing has already been such a ride. It’s all gold to me.”