LONDON – The unthinkable suddenly appeared attainable as Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs navigated the final water jump in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase at the IAAF World Championships.
Team USA had never medaled before in this event at worlds, and here were the Americans storming down the homestretch, clearing the final barrier for a 1-2 finish.
Coburn raised her arms and waved them in triumph as she crossed the finish line while Frerichs put her hands to her head in disbelief.
In one of the most shocking results of the IAAF World Championships, they defeated athletes from Africa who had previously dominated this event.
Coburn shattered her own American record by more than 5 seconds and broke the world championships meet record.
She and Frerichs hugged and then fell to the track together in a medalists' embrace.
What did Coburn say to her teammate? “’Holy Guacamole!’ That’s the PG version,” she said. “(Courtney) kept saying, ‘Am I dreaming?’ Am I dreaming? It was an unreal moment for both us.”
Coburn, who has the Olympic rings tattooed on her right foot, posted a winning time of 9 minutes, 2.58 seconds while Frerichs ran a personal best of 9:03.77 that was also under the American record and an astounding 15 seconds faster than she’d ever run before. Hyvin Kiyenk Jepkemoi of Kenya, who had run the second-fastest time in the field going into the race, was third in 9:04.03.
"This is incredible," said Coburn, who eclipsed the meet record of 9:06.57 set by Ekaterina Volkova of Russia in 2007. “I thought on a perfect day I could sneak in for a medal. Joe (Bosshard, her fiance and coach for the last year) kept telling me that anything was possible and reminding me of the hard workouts I’ve done.”
Evan Jager of Team USA, who won the bronze in the men’s steeplechase, tweeted, “Stat of the year: America won more steeplechase medals than Kenya at the 2017 World Championships. Incredible.”
Coburn set the previous American record of 9:07.63 while winning the bronze medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
While that bronze medal in Rio was historic, this gold was even more momentous.
Coburn said she was well aware that she came in ranked sixth on time and fifth among the runners in the final.
“The whole race, I felt strong and powerful,” she said, “and kept waiting and waiting for it to go bad and to struggle, but I felt great.”
Coburn and Frerichs, who was 11th in Rio, bided their time, staying with the lead pack. For much of the latter part of the race, Coburn was in fourth place and Frerichs fifth, though Frerichs briefly took the lead on the final lap.
They methodically picked off the runners ahead of them.
At the final water jump, Coburn and Frerichs flanked Jepkemoi, who stumbled a bit on her landing. Then they raced down the homestretch for their memorable finish.
"I would never have believed this could happen," said Frerichs. "Maybe fifth or sixth, but silver? Wow, I am shocked. This is an absolute dream.
"I'm so happy to have won alongside Emma. She ran an amazing race to get the championship record.”
Coburn said that at both the 2015 world championships and the 2016 Olympic Games, she “got burned on the last water jump,” so she “saved an extra gear for that.”
“I was kind of waiting for someone to come up and steal it from me,” she added, “and no one did.”
For a moment, Frerichs thought that person could be her.
With 300 meters to go, she pulled ahead of Coburn.
“That’s an extra motivation,” said Coburn, who thought, “If she’s there, I should be there for sure.”
The spectators in London Stadium roared. “The crowd was just going insane to see Emma and I both up there,” Frerichs said. “I knew something special was happening, I just let that energy keep me going.”
For Coburn, the gold capped an arc in which she has improved at every major championships.
Coburn’s previous best finish was fifth place at the 2015 Worlds. On this track at the Olympic Games London 2012, she was eighth. In her world championships debut in 2011, she was 10th.
Jepkemoi said she was happy to win the bronze medal. "The Americans went very fast, as you saw with the championship record," she said. "I did all I could to win that race but they were stronger.
"I tried to stay at the front but they had too much over the last water jump."
The race had some strange moments, starting when Beatrice Chepkoech, one of the pre-race favorites from Kenya went around the first water jump. She retraced her steps and went over it so she wouldn’t be disqualified and wound up finishing fourth at 9:10.45. Ruth Jebet of Bahrain, the early race leader, was fifth in 9:13.96 while Celliphine Chepteek Chespol of Kenya, who had broken 9 minutes in May, was sixth in 9:15.04.
“It definitely took me by surprise,” Frerichs said of Chepkoech’s mistake. “My coach had told me going into it, ‘Crazy stuff happens, stay engaged in your race.’ I was like, ‘OK, this is the crazy.’”
Coburn’s race plan was to shake up her usual strategy. She said that in Diamond League races, the African runners tend to surge in the middle of the race while she tended to be passive. This time she was determined to keep pushing.
For her part, Frerichs just wanted to just stick with Coburn. “I started to feel like something special was happening. I’ve looked up to Emma for a long time, so it made it feel like we were going to do this together.”
In the last lap, she looked at the giant video screen and saw there were just five runners in the lead pack.
“I decided to just go for it at 250,” Frerichs said. “It was the same sensation I had at Olympic trials – I didn’t come here to get fourth. I can taste the medal.”
Now Coburn has a wedding to plan – she and Bosshard are getting married in October – as well as a charity race to organize in her hometown.
But she also had more immediate goals. "Courtney really loves ice cream," Coburn said, "so maybe we'll go out and get some ice cream."