RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Very few Olympians get to leave the games with a medal around their neck, but Colorado’s very own Emma Coburn will leave as one of the elite after earning the bronze medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase Monday morning.
In addition to her third place performance, Coburn broke her own American record, improving her time by over three seconds to 9 minutes, 7.63 seconds.
“My coaches said that an aggressive fast pace would make me medal, so I trusted them and I went for it,” Coburn said. “I’m a little bummed I didn’t have more the last lap to get second, but third in the world is incredible and I’m really happy.”
The medal is the first for the United States in the women’s steeplechase event, and is the first in the steeplechase since 1968.
The Olympics added the women’s steeplechase in 2008 and the American women, under the direction of Colorado track and field coaches Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs have been leading the way in the event for the U.S. since the race’s inception at the Olympics.
Coburn’s former college and current New Balance teammate Jenny (Barringer) Simpson, also a former Buff, was on that first team and finished ninth (9:22.26) overall as the highest American while setting the then-U.S. record. In 2012, Coburn was the highest placing American in her first Olympics, also placing ninth in 9:23.54 (she moved up to eighth after one of the higher placing athletes was found doping).
This year, Coburn again led the charge for the U.S. at the Olympic Games, placing third while destroying her previous American record (9:10.76) from earlier this year. Her U.S. teammates, Colleen Quigley and Courtney Frerichs, finished eighth and 11th, respectively.
“We are thrilled with the medal and record of course, but I am most gratified by the courage and poise with which she raced. She was completely professional,” said Wetmore, who is in Rio with Coburn and Simpson. “We are sincerely thankful for the support we get from CU and Boulder. There is no place equal to conduct this trade.”
In typical Coburn fashion, she jumped out to the front of the pack to start, partially to keep the pace honest in the final. She entered the meet with the third fastest time of the season, so she knew she belonged up front.
Coburn fell back slightly to fourth, but kept the top three in her sight. She continued to look comfortable and didn’t get frustrated, which paid off as she gained ground on Kenya’s Beatrice Chepkoech. Coburn caught her and with one lap to go, it looked like she might have enough to move into second, which was held by another Kenyan, Hyvin Kiyeng Jepkemoi. Coburn didn’t have quite enough as Jepkemoi crossed the finish just .51 seconds in front of her (9:07.12).
Bahrain’s Ruth Jebet won in 8:59.75.
The Crested Butte, Colo. native, became just the fifth CU varsity athlete to win an Olympic medal, CU’s 11th overall (although one was stripped in 2012).
She joins previous varsity athletes Burdie Haldorson (two medals), Bob Jeangerard, Jimmie Heuga and Bill Toomey (Billy Kidd was not on the ski team, but was attending CU). She is CU’s first female varsity athlete to earn a medal (three others were club sport performers), and is just the second track performer to medal. The last Buff to medal in a summer games was Bill Toomey in 1968 when he won the gold in the decathlon.
Prior to this race, the former University of Colorado standout had not won a major international competition medal. Her best outing came in 2015 when she placed fifth at the world championships.
Coburn advanced to the medal round after placing second in her heat in the first round, finishing in 9:18.12. She had stated after that race she was surprised how fast it was and that 9:18 is usually what it takes to medal.
The games are now over for Coburn, but continue for Simpson, who will race in the 1,500-meter finals on Tuesday at 7:30 p.m. MT. Another former Buff, Jeremy Dodson (Samoa), will begin his hunt for a medal in the 200 with the first round also getting underway on Tuesday at 8:50 a.m.