Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
With 1200 meters to go in the Tokyo Olympic 3,000-meter steeplechase on Wednesday, it was Team USA’s Courtney Frerichs who decided to take charge. As she surged to the front and gapped the rest of the field, it seemed like nobody wanted to contest her.
At the bell lap, however, Peruth Chemutai of Uganda found the gear she needed to catch Frerichs, and then with 200 meters left in the race, Chemutai passed her to win the gold in a national record, 9:01.45. Frerichs took silver in 9:04.79 and Hyvin Kiyeng of Kenya got the bronze in 9:05.39.
“I’m so happy and proud of myself,” Chemutai, who is her country’s first female gold medalist, said after the race. “It was a good race—I enjoyed myself and I enjoyed the weather.”
For Frerichs, the decision to be courageous in the Olympic final was one that she had made before the gun went off, she said.
“I was prepared to have to take it early and make it a hard race,” she said, noting that she became ill at the Bowerman Track Club training camp in Hawaii before traveling to Tokyo and wasn’t sure if she’d even get to fly to Japan. “It’s really difficult to put yourself out there like that and I definitely had some fear to overcome but I knew I’d walk away with no regrets if I really laid it all out there.”
It wasn’t the race result most had predicted with such a loaded list of competitors, including world-record holder (8:44.32) Beatrice Chepkoech, who finished seventh in 9:16.33. American Emma Coburn, who won bronze at the 2016 Games and was the 2017 world champion, had also long been a gold-medal hope, but couldn’t respond to Frerichs’s move. Ultimately, Coburn fell in the final lap and was disqualified, although she did finish the race. Val Constien, first-time Olympian for the U.S., was 12th in 9:31.61.
“My aim was to win the race, but because of the injury, my mind was not here. It was so painful,” Chepkoech said. “I have problems with two tendons and a hamstring, low back and the stomach. I got injured before our trials in Kenya and it has been so tight since we finished the trials in Kenya. I tried to nurse it, but it can’t respond.”
Frerichs hasn’t been shy about the fitness she’s built this year and the goals she had to medal, so it wasn’t entirely a surprise that she was the one to make the bold move to the front, which broke the race open. She told Women’s Running before the U.S. Olympic Trials that a key component of her improvement was working on her mental game and quitting any comparisons she was making between herself and competitors or 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.”
She reiterated after the race that the psychological improvements she’s made were critical.
“I had a lot of success earlier in my professional career but have really struggled with the mental side of things in the last couple of years, and that really came to a head during Covid, whenever we lost a lot of the goals we were training for,” Frerichs said. “My coaches and I back in January decided to really address that and I think it’s really helped me to overcome a lot.”
It’s been a trying year for Coburn and her family. Her mother, Annie Coburn, was diagnosed with stage-four colon cancer in December 2019 and has been going through treatment in their hometown, Crested Butte, Colorado, ever since. Coburn said after the race that she didn’t have any answers for what went wrong in the final.
“I just couldn’t keep up with that move that Courtney threw down, and my body just shut down. My last 600 meters, it took everything I had to stay on the track,” Coburn said. “I don’t think there was an error in training. I know that I am in a really good shape. It sucks to suck on the biggest stage. I value myself beyond what happens at the 2020 Olympics, but life is funner when you can go home with a medal.”
Coburn continued: “I am better than I was today, but there was nothing for me to do. My body shut down.”