No steeplechase event has ever been generous to Team USA in any Olympic games since 1984, when Brian Diemer won his bronze medal in Los Angeles. But not anymore. At least in Rio.
Thirty-two years thereafter, the steeplechase game in Rio 2016 Olympics gifted Team USA with a bronze medal when Emma Coburn managed to land third place in the 3,000-meter race, jumping over 35 barriers, seven of which have a water pit.
Not only did Coburn bring the bronze into Team USA’s list, she also broke her own American record “by more than three seconds with a time of 9:07.63,” according to Scott Allen of Washington Post.
Coburn had a pizzeria to thank for what made her the first American to win another steeplechase Olympic medal after three decades, and the first American woman ever, for that matter.
“Being your waitress and busboy and hostess was so much fun. Thank you for being there to support me now,” Coburn said, as quoted by Ben Rohrbach of Yahoo Sports, when a reporter asked her about what she wanted to say to her colleagues in the restaurant back home in Butte, Colorado.
The pizzeria was a witness to how Coburn developed into the world-class runner that she is today.
According to Rohrbach, “Coburn and her siblings worked [there] while growing up in the small town, where she captured state titles in the 800-, 1,600- and 3,200-meter runs for Crested Butte Community School.”
“Colorado still doesn’t hold the steeplechase at its prep state meets,” Rohrbach added, “but Coburn may have gotten her feet wet for the obstacle course while competing against pizza chefs in the alley outside [the pizzeria].
Coburn’s longtime manager Colleen Farrell must have been proud when she recalled in a Colorado Runner Magazine interview in 2012 how Emma first qualified to join the US Olympic team back then in London, where she finished ninth in the race. Farrell hired Emma based on her old sister Gracie’s merit as an employee.
“Yeah, it had a lot to do with Gracie… She was such a great worker, so [when Emma applied] I certainly said yes. Then Emma turned out to be just a delight; both of them were really fun,” Farrell said, as quoted by Colorado Runner Magazine.
“Neither one of [the Coburn sisters] were really sprinters, so sometimes the kitchen guys got lucky… but they wouldn’t want to line up with Emma now in her event,” Farrell added with a laugh.
Back in Rio on Monday, Emma Coburn had less than two laps remaining in the women’s steeplechase event, preferring at first to slowly narrow the gap between herself and Ruth Jebet of Bahrain, who was running in front of all the other runners, with Kenya’s Hyvin Jepkemoi coming next, just six seconds behind Jebet, when they finally reached the finish line.
But Coburn was not inclined to give up. As Paul Myerberg of USA Today had it, “She wouldn’t, finishing more than nine seconds ahead of the fourth-place finisher.”
“I just thought, ‘Okay, hold onto this. Hold onto this,'” said the 25-year old Coburn, as quoted by Rick Maese of Washington Post. “And then with about a lap to go, I looked back, and [Beatrice Chepkoech, who was running behind her fellow Kenyan Jepkemoi] was pretty far away. And she has a killer kick, but I thought, ‘OK, wow, this is mine to lose. So don’t give this up.'”
Maese’s note on how the steeplechase game ended is somewhat frustrating:
“By the last lap, she knew she was headed to the podium and despite a late push for silver, she was happy to accept bronze… Coburn nearly ran down Kenya’s Hyvin Kiyeng Jepkemoi at the end, finishing just a half-second away from a silver.”
For Coburn, however, it should be the other way around.
“I really think in the next four, eight years, we’re going to have more and more [American] women winning medals,” she said just after the race.
[Photo by Natacha Pisarenko/AP Images]