Steeple-chasing success

CU’s Coburn shines in national running spotlight

Matt Johnson | Boulder Weekly

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

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

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

She’s certainly on the right track.