LONDON (AP) — Rolling on the ground, still gasping for breath, Courtney Frerichs hugged Emma Coburn and shouted into her ear: “Am I dreaming? Am I dreaming?”
Nope. That really happened.
The two Americans outran two Kenyans to the finish line Friday and ended up 1-2 in the steeplechase at world championships for the latest improbable — in this case, impossible? — triumphs for a stable of U.S. long-distance runners who keep getting stronger.
Coburn finished in an American-record time of 9 minutes, 2.58 seconds, while Frerichs set a personal best at 9:03.77. These marked the first two steeplechase medals for U.S. women since the event began at the world championships in 2005. It marked the first time Americans have finished 1-2 in a women’s or men’s steeplechase at the worlds or the Olympics.
These were the fourth and fifth medals for the U.S. distance runners at the championships in London, including a bronze from Amy Cragg in the marathon, a bronze from Evan Jager in the men’s steeplechase and a silver from Jenny Simpson in the 1,500.
None were more shocking than this.
Over the decades, the U.S. has had its share of moments at the long distances that have generally been dominated by Africans: Billy Mills came out of nowhere to win gold in the 10,000 at the 1964 Olympics; Jim Ryun held world records in the 1960s and has Olympic silver from the 1,500 in 1968.
Frank Shorter, Mary Decker, Joan Benoit and, more recently, Deena Kastor, Bernard Lagat and Meb Keflezighi have made headlines over the years.
One big difference: There’s evidence that this most recent triumph could be more the norm than the exception.
Vin Lananna, the president of USA Track and Field, credited a long-term commitment to distance once lacking in a country that has always been more fascinated with the sprints.
“We’ve been close a lot,” Lananna said. “Then, just like anything else, eventually you push it over the edge.”
Coburn, whose bronze last year was the first medal of any color at the Olympics for an American woman in the event, credited an increased emphasis on having support and medical staff on hand at the biggest events, along with training differences. She took the next step in her own training when she left her well-respected coaches, Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs, and started working with her fiancee, Joe Bosshard.
There’s something more basic to it, as well.
“I think we’re all motivating each other,” Coburn said. “Evan (Jager) and I have been in the mix the last couple of years. You (break down) these barriers of what you think is possible. I think Courtney feels the same way.”
In this race, the field got a break early when one of the world’s best, Beatrice Chepkoech of Kenya, missed the turn for the water jump on the inside of the track and had to go back, costing her precious energy.
Coburn and Frerichs raced near the front the entire way.
“I was just waiting for the Africans to pass me and surge to overtake me,” Coburn said.
Only it never happened.
The final sprint came down to the two Americans and two Kenyans — Chepkoech and Hyvin Jepkemoi.
In the past, there was no doubt who would win that sort of showdown. This time, the U.S. runners came out on top, while Jepkemoi took bronze and Chepkoech finished fourth.
Coburn and Frerichs? They made history — and could barely believe it themselves.
“I was just in complete shock,” Frerichs said. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘Did this just really happen?’”
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