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Emma Coburn: “I Know I’m Fit, But You Need to Prove It in the Race.”

The 2016 Olympic bronze medalist trusts that her body and mind will know what to do when she gets on the starting line at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials.

Emma Coburn isn’t just one of the most beloved and respected athletes among her peers—she also happens to be the most dominant steeplechaser this country has ever seen. 

She won the 2012 U.S. Track & Field Olympic Trials in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, and then finished eighth in the event at the London Olympics (9:23.54). Four years later at the 2016 Rio Olympics, she set a then-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), again making history—the first U.S. woman to win that title. Oh, and she’s also an eight-time U.S. national champion who has won every year since 2011 (except 2013 when she didn’t compete). 

Coburn heads into the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Olympic Trials confident, and in good company. She’ll face off against Courtney Frerichs, who holds the current American record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase (9:00.85) set at the 2018 Monaco Diamond League meet, and Colleen Quigley, who comes into the Trials with the third-fastest qualifying time (9:11.41) but has not raced the steeplechase since July 2019.

Coburn is more than ready for the challenge. Months of hard, consistent training at altitude in Crested Butte, Colorado, with her Team Boss crew and their coach (her husband, Joe Bosshard) has translated to some serious fitness.

Steeplechasers are always used to having seven, eight, or even nine months between races, Coburn says, because it’s not run indoors and it’s not run in the fall. But the pandemic-induced racing hiatus is definitely the longest she’s gone—and mentally she’s ready to get back to racing.

Coburn opened her 2021 season racing the 1500 meters at the Track Meet in May, finishing fourth in 4:04.28. “I always like racing the 1500 because it’s just enough of a physical stimulus and challenge to be useful, but emotionally I have no fear or stress about it,” Coburn told Women’s Running a few days before the race. “It’s often where I like to start my season because it’s just the unofficial kickoff to things getting real.”

On May 29, Coburn raced her first 3,000-meter steeplechase since September 30, 2019 at the Diamond League meet in Doha, Qatar. She finished fifth in 9:08.25.

”At this point in my season, I’m walking away from the race feeling like I’m in a good spot, even though 5th place is not something I’m satisfied with,” Coburn wrote on Instagram after the race. “My second-fastest opener, in some pretty harsh conditions. Feels good to be back in the steeple!”

Coburn knows the Trials are critical. Not only because she wants to continue her streak and become a nine-time U.S. national champion, but also to feel ready to race for a podium spot in Tokyo.  

“I basically have to have it all together at Trials,” she says. “Not only to make the team, but I also don’t have that long of a window to get it together before Tokyo.”

Age: 30

Hometown: Boulder, Colorado  

Event: 3,000-meter steeplechase (9:02.35) 

On her evolution as a steeplechaser: “Early in college, I always thought, ‘Oh, if I’m ever running 9:30 for the steeplechase, I bet I feel like a robot—unstoppable, invincible.’ And then I start running 9:30 and I’m like, ‘Oh, I just feel like my normal self.’ And it just keeps ratcheting down. So I feel like my normal self, I don’t feel like there’s any crazy new mind blowing thing happening. I know I’m fit, my workouts have proven that. But when it’s just a slow adaptation every day, you’re sometimes like, well, I think I’m adapting well, I think I’m improving, and I believe I am, but you need to prove it in the race. I can’t tell how that growth has gone yet.”

How 2021 compares to 2016: “I have similar confidence with both Rio and Tokyo. I think the difference is I feel a little bit more calm, a little bit more at peace. In 2015, I was on and off injured and didn’t really hit my goal at the world championship, so I just felt a little bit more pressure in 2016. But I was a pro, I was focused, I was on it; I wasn’t ever overwhelmed with that pressure. But I think the point I’m at in my career now is I’m still just as hungry, but it’s no longer the only thing I’m looking at in life.  

“Of course, in training I’m thinking about being successful in racing, and I’m obviously eating right, sleeping a lot, napping, getting treatment, doing all the things that I need to do. I’m focused and driven and I want that medal and I want to be on the Olympic team and I want to be on the podium in Tokyo—and I’d be very disappointed if I wasn’t—but a Tokyo medal isn’t on my mind, 24/7. 

“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.”

On her Team Boss training partners: “We all just get along, and we’re friends, which isn’t a requirement for having a successful team, but I think we really support each other a lot and can bring the best out in each other. 

“We have a whole spectrum of personalities: some of us are a little bit more gentle and soft and can give you the pat on the back when you’re feeling really sad about something; there’s people that will make you laugh; and then there’s people that will be like really honest with you and motivate you to be better. 

“I think the biggest part is that we’re true cheerleaders for each other, but we’re also able to be grounded and seek the best from each other. It’s not all fluffy BS stuff; it’s real. We expect greatness from each other, but we also laugh a lot and have a lot of fun together.”

Her definition of strength: “Obviously in my field, so much of it is physical. Our strength in the weight room is something that is partially a defining characteristic of our team. As distance runners, when you’re in the hurt locker and you’re grinding in a big session and you get through it, that’s strength. 

“On the physical category, it’s not being afraid to hurt and it’s pushing through discomfort, and coming out the other side, that makes you strong. On the emotional side, strength is so much about having a good perspective on whatever sadness or heartbreak or disappointment is in front of you. Seeing it clearly, if possible seeing the logic, taking yourself out of the victim chair, and moving forward through it. That’s strength.” 

How she stays confident: “I think part of what makes me a happy, confident person is that my family will just praise me and love me no matter what I do. They’re honest. They know the sport and they know if I run poorly, they know every workout what my splits are and if it was a good day or a bad daythey’re very much in it with me, so they can be honest. I know whether I’m successful or not, my family and Joe and my friends are going to love me and be there for me. I think as a whole, the people I surround myself with all have a lot of confidence in me.” 

Sage advice: At the end of the day, Joe always says, ‘it’s just running.’ I love it and it’s my job and it’s my greatest passion, but I’m putting one foot in front of the other and doing it the best way I know how, and I feel like I have a good perspective on racing and running and this amazing life and this amazing job. But I’m never burdened by it.”

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Editor’s Note: This article is 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. You can find all of our coverage here.