EUGENE, Ore. – For nearly two years, Emma Coburn’s personal best in the 3,000-meter steeplechase was faster than the American record, and yet she wasn’t the American record holder.
Weird, huh? Coburn ran 9 minutes, 11.42 seconds on July 12, 2014, in Glasgow, Scotland, in a Diamond League event. That was faster than the record of 9:12.50 set by training partner Jenny Simpson in August 2009. A beaming Coburn posed with the Glasgow scoreboard indicating her time.
Yet Coburn, the favorite in Thursday’s final at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field, did not get credit for setting an American record until May 28, when she ran 9:10.76 at the Prefontaine Classic on this same Hayward Field track.
“It’s a relief to not have to have an asterisk or have to explain or have to have announcers or media not really know how to address it,” said Coburn, who is the defending Olympic Trials champion and placed eighth at the London 2012 Olympic Games. “So it’s nice that it’s over and dealt with. I feel like that time gives me good confidence moving forward for the rest of the season.”
When she thought she had the American record in Glasgow, there was just one problem: Coburn was not drug-tested, which is a requirement for USA Track & Field to ratify a new American record. At major meets, drug testing is not mandatory on all athletes and athletes or their representative must request it – usually in advance if they think they will set a record – to make sure it happens.
Coburn, who had finished second in the race to Hiwot Ayalew of Ethiopia, acts as her own agent, a rarity in elite track and field.
“I was celebrating and excited and didn’t even think about it,” Coburn said. “It was on me. But that’s in the past now, so I’m happy.”
Before the Prefontaine Classic, Coburn was on her game, both as agent and athlete. She made arrangements with the meet director to have a drug test in case she ran a fast race. She then tweeted, “Drug test done. #AmericanRecord”
Could Coburn lower it even further on Thursday?
“That’s not my goal coming here,” she said. “If I’m feeling great, maybe that’ll happen. But that’s definitely not in the forefront of my mind at all.”
However, she can rest assured that if she does break the record, she’ll be asked to report for drug-testing without even having to set it up herself.
Coburn will be seeking her fifth U.S. national title and third in a row in the steeplechase. She won her first, in 2011, when she was still in college at the University of Colorado.
This season Coburn is the third-ranked performer internationally behind only Ruth Jebet of Bahrain (8:59.97) and Hyvin Kiyeng Jepkemoi of Kenya (9:00.01), who posted those times at the Prefontaine Classic in finishing ahead of Coburn. Only Russia’s Gulnara Galkina, who ran 8:58.81 in 2008, has run faster.
Coburn was only 20 when she competed in her first major international meet, the 2011 world championships in Daegu, South Korea, placing 10th.
Expectations were high coming into the 2012 trials in Eugene, where she recalled “people saying you’re a lock to make the team. It didn’t freak me out then, but it really doesn’t bother me now. I’m just a little bit more at ease.”
Coburn was the youngest runner on Team USA in London at age 21.
Since then, she said, “I think I have a little bit more confidence in big pressure races. I felt pretty confident in 2012 in big pressure races, like in the Olympics I wasn’t panicked or nervous. I was excited. But I have just learned all the other side of it – how to shut down the outside world and the nerves and the hype and the press, and just isolate the track a little bit more.”
Coburn, who placed fifth at the 2015 world championships, grew up and still lives in the ski resort of Crested Butte, Colorado, where she would ski, snowboard, kayak, mountain bike and play ice hockey.
The other sports kept her fresh for track and field, especially the 3,000-meter steeplechase with its 35 barriers, including water jumps.
“I like the steeplechase because it’s different and fun and you get to splash around and make some athletic moves along the way,” Coburn said. “So I think it’s a nice change from just the monotony of running in a straight line.”
Coburn was the fastest qualifier in the steeplechase heats on Monday with a time of 9:35.28, followed by Leah O’Connor (9:35.77) and Stephanie Garcia (9:35.95), who competed in a different heat.
A natural front-runner, Coburn led the way in her heat, which was also the best way to stay safe. Later that day, the women’s 800-meter runners were bunched up in an intense race around the final turn, with pre-race favorites Alysia Montano falling to the track and Brenda Martinez knocked off-stride. They did not make the Olympic team.
“In all rounds across all events, there’s always a debate on getting out of traffic,” Coburn said. “I think every athlete has to debate, ‘Do I want to push it just a little bit to get out of traffic to make sure no funny business happens? Or do I want to make it a little bit easier but maybe have that risk of someone clipping your shoe or tripping on a barrier and not having enough time to recover?’
“For me, I love running in the front. Definitely in championship races I’m comfortable taking that risk in a final and not leading and risking a mishap, but in a prelim, a 9:35 effort for me versus a 9:40 effort and risking traffic doesn’t make that much of a difference. So I just went for it and got out of trouble.”
She added, “I’m just ready to rest up and get ready for Thursday.”
Tuesday wasn’t only a rest day for Coburn and her fellow steeplechasers. The Olympic Trials took the day off and will resume Wednesday with the men’s and women’s hammer throws.
Competition returns in multiple events on Thursday. Besides the women’s steeplechase final, the women’s shot put and women’s triple jump will also conclude. Preliminary action begins in perhaps the most hotly anticipated event of the trials: the women’s 100-meter hurdles, where 11 of the top 15 performers in the world this year are Americans, including the top five.
The men’s 200, women’s javelin, women’s 5,000, men’s triple jump, men’s and women’s 400-meter hurdles, men’s discus throw, and men’s and women’s 1,500-meter also start Thursday.