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At her final tune-up before the 2021 Tokyo Olympics earlier this month, Emma Coburn was going for the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase American record in Monaco. It looked like she had a good shot at the mark, held by USA teammate Courtney Frerichs (9:00.85), until she fell in the final water jump.
Coburn, the 2017 world champion and 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, didn’t break the nine-minute barrier as she had hoped, but she still saw the positive in the performance, calling it “99 percent perfect” afterward. Minus the snafu late in the race, she said she “almost nailed it.”
Alas, that is the intrigue of the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Something can always go wrong and if it does, another athlete is sure to seize the opportunity to have her moment. Going into the preliminary round on Saturday in Japan, Coburn, 30, and Frerichs, 28, are among the medal contenders—if everything goes according to plan.
Beatrice Chepkoech, the 30-year-old Kenyan world record holder (8:44.32) hasn’t won any steeple races yet in 2021 and her best this year is 9:04.94, finishing second in that Monaco race where Coburn fell. Fellow Kenyan Hyvin Kiyeng, 29, won that day, though officials rang the bell at the wrong time, causing her to miscount her laps (she started her kick 400 meters too early)—still she finished in 9:03.82, which is an indication of her fitness. Mekides Abebe, 19, of Ethiopia is actually the top contender by time this season, going into the preliminary round, running 9:02.52 (a national record) in Doha.
At the U.S. Olympic Trials in June, where Coburn was first, Frerichs second, and Valerie Constein was third (in a six-second PR of 9:18.36) to make her first Olympic team, Coburn remarked that the event is the deepest it’s ever been in the U.S. Frerichs agreed.
“I think we’re bringing an incredibly strong team [to Tokyo],” Frerichs said, adding, “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.”
You can watch Frerichs, Coburn, and Constein compete in the first round of the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2021 Olympics at 9:25 p.m. Eastern on July 31. The final is at 7 a.m. Eastern on August 4.