Friday, July 8, 2016

Women's Steeplechase

It Helps to Be an NCAA Champion

Emma Coburn and the deepest field in US history gave Hayward Field fans what they came for: a fast, dramatic, and compelling Olympic Trials race. Halfway through it was no surprise that behind Coburn, nine still had a chance to make the Olympic team. 

“I was just trying to stay relaxed, and in a steeplechase especially there’s so much risk and drama with the barriers, so I was just trying to stay relaxed and confident,” said Coburn, who won in 9:17.48 and is now US steeplechase champion for the fifth time.

Behind her, relaxation was hardly the word to describe what unfolded.

Ten became seven became five - and ultimately three - as Stephanie Garcia kept the pace honest; she was first or second throughout the race until the final lap. But neither Garcia nor Ashley Higginson, who took the early pace, was anywhere near the podium at the end. They paid dearly for their front-running tactics; Garcia fell over the last water jump and finished 5th while Higginson lost contact midway through the race to finish 9th.

The stars of the final lap frenzy were the last two NCAA steeple champions, Courtney Frerichs, who set the collegiate record of 9:24.41 in Eugene this spring, and 2015 World Championships team member Colleen Quigley, who took home the 2015 NCAA crown. Frerichs blasted her way from 4th to 2nd while Quigley hung on for her Olympic team spot in 3rd.

“At 800 (to go) I was hurting pretty bad,” said Frerichs. “I hadn’t been in a race where I’ve had people in front of me. But then, once we got to 600 and I was starting to catch Leah (O’Connor) again, I kind of got a second wind and a glimpse of hope. I crossed with 400 to go in fourth and I told myself I was not going to be getting fourth today. I was gonna push that last 400. I had a lot of confidence in my last 400 because my other two hard steeples I’ve been able to close pretty fast. I just kind of channeled that confidence in that last 400.”

O’Connor was 3rd on the 6th lap but faded badly. When she lost momentum it was gone seemingly forever; it took her an agonizing 1:44.97 to complete her last lap. Ultimately, someone who was such an integral part of this race - and who had a realistic chance to make the team - finished last.

Quigley said, quite understandably, “The end of the race is really blurry in my brain. I did feel that she (Frerichs) was right behind me and I’m not sure if that’s because I heard people saying her name… As I said after the prelim, this is my dream team and I wanted to be on the team with my new (Bowerman Track Club) teammate.”

Of the personal record it took to make the team, Quigley said, “…it definitely was hard to have confidence in a PR ability today. But honestly I wasn’t looking at the clock. My coach and I said there’s no use in looking at the pace. Just focus on competing against people and the time is there or it’s not there, it really doesn’t matter. That’s what I was focused on – competing – and the PR just showed up. It was kind of a surprise."

2012 Olympian Shalaya Kipp came storming from the middle of the pack to finish fourth; she was 8th with two laps to go. Of the top four, only Coburn did not set a personal best. Frerichs PRed to set the NCAA record again in 9:20.92, while Quigley’s new best was 9:21.29. All three broke Anna Willard’s 2008 Trials record of 9:27.59. If there’s any single indicator of the dramatic improvement of this event in the US, it’s that the top 11 finished under the Olympic standard of 9:45.00.

The NCAA meet seems to have become the proving ground of US steeplers. In addition to recent champs Frerichs and Quigley, Coburn won in 2011 and 2013. 

Frerichs, who became engaged this year - at the finish line of the NCAA cross country championships after her New Mexico squad took home its first-ever team title - said, “It’s been absolutely the most amazing year I could have asked for.”

It’s not over yet. With such a strong and deep US team headed for Rio, Coburn, Frerichs, and Quigley are likely finalists and top ten finishers in the Olympic Games.

Coburn agrees. “We have a really young group of talented women who I think will continue to make world finals and Olympic finals and hopefully contending for medals against our international competition.”

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