Emma Coburn never dreamed she would come this far.
CU’s cross-country/track standout, a senior from Crested Butte, completed her journey to superstardom in the running world earlier this summer with victories in two big — scratch that, huge — national races.
“Everything’s just transformed,” she says. “I got to college and I thought it would be great to one day make the varsity, and then I surpassed that. Everything’s a lot more than I thought it could be, so it’s really fun right now.”
Wouldn’t you have fun, too, if you were good enough to win two different national championships in one month?
Coburn imprinted her name firmly into the ranks of the best female runners in the nation by garnering first-place finishes in the NCAA 3,000-meter steeplechase National Championship and the USA Women’s National Championship in the same race. (A steeplechase is an obstacle race that has four barriers and a water jump that are spaced around the track.)
Coburn’s time of 9 minutes, 41.14 seconds on June 11 at the NCAA Track and Field Championships was enough to hold off her competitors and give her the accolade of best college steeplechaser in the country. Two weeks later, she accomplished an even greater feat, winning the USA Women’s title in 9 minutes, 44.11 seconds.
And to think she just came by running casually.
“I started running track in high school just because my siblings did,” Coburn says. “It was kind of the thing to do, and I just assumed I’d do it in high school. Even in high school I started getting better, but I didn’t think I’d even run in college.”
Even her signature race, the steeplechase, she came across through mere coincidence.
“The summer after my junior year of high school I was going to this meet in Albuquerque, New Mexico, after the season had ended to try to get a time to qualify for nationals in the 800,” she says. “But we didn’t want to go all the way there just to run an 800, so my dad looked at the race schedule, and the only other event that was on a different day than the 800 was the steeplechase. So I just did it. I had never done it before, and I had never seen it. It’s really random how it happened, but I ended up doing pretty well at it at that meet, so from there it worked out.”
A natural talent, Coburn says she has been driven to these spectacular accomplishments by a natural desire to be the best.
“I’m a really competitive person, I guess, and I really like to win,” she says casually. “I really like progressing [in] my fitness. I think that’s motivation, just my competitive nature of wanting to win.
“When it comes down to the serious races, I think it’s just me being competitive and not wanting to lose — me wanting to get off the track knowing that I gave it everything I had and not regretting everything.”
Coburn has been running under the tutelage of CU coaches Mark Wetmore, Heather Burroughs and Billy Nelson.
“I’ve been really lucky to have the coaches that I have,” Coburn says. “Coach Wetmore and Coach Burroughs are pretty incredible when it comes to the steeplechase … They coached Billy Nelson, who’s an assistant coach for us also, and he won the men’s USA steeple title this year. So they know what they’re doing. I think throughout my college career it’s been really good to be in their hands.”
Considering all of what Coburn has managed to achieve this year, which includes both national titles and a Big 12 Championship in the steeplechase, one would think she might be ready to stop racing for a while.
To the contrary, Coburn has her sights set on even more success in the steeple. She recently was in Europe, racing in two events in Belgium and London, as part of training for this year’s IAAF World Championships in Daegu, South Korea.
“I’m really, really looking forward to [the World Championships],” she says. “Going to a World Championship is a goal that I never thought was attainable when I came to college. Even a year ago, I thought it was a long shot. In the past couple months it became more of a reality that I could make it. Then I did make it, but it’s still very surreal.”
No matter how she performs in this year’s World Championship in August, Coburn is set to take in the experience and use it as perspective for later world races, which, if this season is any indication, will be common for the 20-year-old.
“Being on Team USA is really special, so it’s definitely a learning experience, hopefully, for the future if I can make an Olympic team or another World Championship team,” she says. “I think it’s going to be a good experience.”
Heading into her last CU running seasons in both cross-country and track this fall, Coburn wants to finish on a high note. Although cross-country is not her specialty, she is looking for a season of which she can be proud.
“I’ve never been a great cross-country runner,” she says. “Last season I had a great season, and then on the day of nationals, I didn’t have a great race. I’ve never put together a great cross-country season, so I’d really like to put together a respectable cross-country season. Being an all-American in that is always a goal.”
In track, she will look to challenge herself once again and see if she can’t win another national championship.
“Of course, I want to win another NCAA title in the steeplechase before I leave,” she says. “It was nice this year having won a title and having that in my pocket, but I’d like to win another one.”
She’s certainly on the right track.