Courtney Frerichs poses with the silver medal for the Women's 3000m Steeplechase Final at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on August 04, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan.
TOKYO — Courtney Frerichs knew she wasn’t going to win by sitting back. With a mile to go in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase Wednesday, she went for it.
“I just had this feeling that if I didn’t start cranking it down, it was going to come down to an 800,” said Frerichs, the American record holder in the event. “The more people you have in at the end, the more it comes down to foot speed, and I didn’t want that to be the case today.”
The gutsy move nearly paid off. The 28-year-old from Nixa, Missouri, built a sizable lead with three laps to go. Uganda’s Peruth Chemutai finally reeled her back in with 250 meters remaining. No one else could catch her.
“Getting passed with 250 to go when you’re in the lead is never what you want to happen,” Frerichs said. “But I knew that an Olympic medal is an Olympic medal, and I just needed to keep holding on.”
Chemutai won the gold medal in 9:01.45, followed by Frerichs with a season-best time of 9:04.79. Hyvin Kiyeng of Kenya won the bronze medal in 9:05.39. Crossing the finish line, Frerichs grabbed the air in disbelief, then laid down on the track. Her finish was the best by an American since women’s steeplechase was added to the Olympics in 2008.
“It was surreal,” she said. “It was everything I ever dreamed about.”
For Emma Coburn, the race was more like a nightmare.
“My mind was in it, my mind was trying,” she said. “My body shut down.”
The defending Olympic bronze medalist and 2017 world champion, Coburn’s mood moved between sadness, anger, confusion and surliness during a reflective 15-minute interview with reporters. Despite her candid attempts to work through what just happened, she remained at a loss to do so. All she knew was that something wasn’t right. The top American steeplechaser for the last decade was flat. With four laps to go, she clipped a hurdle. In the bell lap, she clipped that hurdle again, this time tumbling off the track.
Though she finished the race, initially listed as 14th, the 30-year-old from Crested Butte, Colorado, was later disqualified.
“I’m better than I was today, but there was nothing, nothing for me to do,” Coburn said. “My body shut down.”
Team USA’s other runner, Valerie Constien, finished 12th, running 9:31.61 on another muggy night at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.
The night before the race, both Coburn and Frerichs went to sleep believing they could be on the podium today. That had been the case at the 2017 world championships, when Coburn won and Frerichs finished second. Coburn and Frerichs also finished 1-2 at every national championships during the last quad, as well as at the last two U.S. Olympic Team Trials.
“We both have the potential land the talent to be on the podium together,” Frerichs said.
When the gun went off Wednesday, only one of their races went as planned.
For Frerichs, a former NCAA champion for the University of New Mexico after being the runner-up a year earlier for the Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos, the plan was always to push it. Inspired by a similar move made by teammate Evan Jager in 2016, when he ended up with an Olympic silver medal, Frerichs and her coach determined her best chance to medal was to make a break for it.
“My strength as a runner is my strength,” she said, “so I knew going into it that my best shot was to rely on that.”
Running away from a loaded field in an international final was scary, said Frerichs, who has now competed in two Olympics and two world championships. In her mind, it was the only option.
“It can be a really hard way to run. It doesn’t necessarily feel good,” she said. “I knew it was going to be my best shot.”
She nearly made it, getting into the final lap before Chemutai finally caught her in a time that set a national record for Uganda. Two other runners were closing in fast down the final straight, but they couldn’t close the gap.
“(I) was just trying to hold it together to hold onto the win,” said Frerichs, who battled a stomach bug that left her throwing up on the track in her final training session before leaving for Tokyo. “I didn’t come away with the win, but I came away with silver, and I’m over the moon.”
Coburn came into the race fully believing she’d be on that podium too. There was no reason for her to think otherwise. She’d ran well at the Olympic trials, her body felt fit, her mind ready. The only difference in her training leading up to Tokyo and her training leading up to the 2019 world championships, where she won a silver medal, was that this time she felt even better.
What happened in the race didn’t make sense.
“I went to bed last night thinking I was going to be coming home with an Olympic medal,” she said. “I walked on that starting line thinking I was coming home with an Olympic medal.”
Instead, she’s “coming home empty-handed with a lot of heartache for five years of work.”
Frerichs said she felt “heartbroken” for Coburn, who she called her idol in the sport.
“She’s really brought all of us steeplechasers along, her and Evan have really made the event what it is in the United States,” Frerichs said. “I know I wouldn’t be here without her.”
Want to follow Team USA athletes during the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020? Visit TeamUSA.org/Tokyo2020 to view the medal table, results and competition schedule.