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Dave Hunter

Dave HunterDave Hunter is a track & field journalist, announcer, and broadcaster.  Dave reports on the premier track & field gatherings around the globe, frequently serves as an arena or stadium announcer for championship events, and has undertaken foreign and domestic broadcast assignments in the sport.

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Emma Coburn, photo by PhotoRun.net

 


Will Talented US Steeple Star Climb Podium?

 

Emma Coburn is the most successful United States woman steeplechaser of all time. The 24-year old Colorado native is the American record holder in the 3000 meter barrier event [9:11.42] and has posted 5 of the top 6 American clockings of all time in this grueling, non-rhythmic event. Like Evan Jager - her American male counterpart in the steeplechase - the 4-time national steeplechase champion dominates her domestic competition. Also like Jager, she is just now learning how to be a consistently effective racer on the international scene where the superior global talent in the steeple requires an elevated performance.

Both Coburn and Jager are facing the Rupp Dilemma - a predicament where the athlete is essentially unchallenged by the domestic challengers in their specialty and must find a way to raise their game to become more competitive with their superior global competitors. With Coach Salazar's guidance, Rupp cracked the code and essentially shored up the weaknesses in his international racing through a rigorous diet of under-distance racing against more daunting opponents. As a consequence, the Oregon Project distance star - toughened by stiff competition at shorter distances - developed a much stronger finish to his race. The result? Rupp grabbed a 10,000 meter silver medal in the 2012 Olympic Games. Mark Wetmore - Coburn's highly-revered coach and Zen master - appears to be charting a similar course for his young protégée. In 2014 - a year devoid of a global championship - the Wetmore-trained athlete fared far better against international competition, lowered the American steeple record to 9:11.42 - #11 all time, and was ranked #2 in the world.

In her continuing quest to become even more competitive with the best steeplers in the world, Coburn took yet another important step forward this morning in earning an automatic time qualifier in the opening round of the women's 3000 meter steeplechase. After a frenzied start in her heat of 15 athletes, the Colorado native - running well within herself - took the lead shortly after the 1 kilometer mark and later breezed by 2K in 6:20. With a gentle surge over the final 500 meters she cruised to the finish line - crossing 3rd in an easy-peasy 9:27.19. Just another day in Emma's Oval Office. In the mixed zone, the two-time NCAA steeple champion was upbeat about her first round performance. "It felt good," she noted. "The first kilometer was a little chaotic - a lot of bodies in the water pit - but I was ready for it. So I kinda took over pretty shortly after 1K just to avoid some of that traffic. And then it just felt better. We were clicking off 75's and I knew I had to run right around 9:30 to get a time qualifier. I was hoping just to get the time qualifier, but I noticed there were 4 of us left with 300 to go and I started kicking a little bit. And then when I saw through the water that I was safe I just appreciated the moment and kinda chilled out. It was good."

Coburn is an excellent natural hurdler. Over time, she has grooved an even more efficient silky-smooth technique that allows her to gain a stride - or maybe two - on her opponents with each barrier clearance. "I don't know what it is," muses Coburn. "I came to college and was always comfortable with [my hurdling technique]. My form wasn't as tight and nice like it is now." Coburn even delights in the hazardous water jump - seven race moments often loathed by even the most accomplished steeplechasers. "It has always been a fun moment for me," explains Coburn as she embraces the water component of her specialty. "The very first time I tried it in high school, I thought, 'This is great!' I think where some people get in trouble is when they view it as this horrible, impeding factor in the race that they have to get over. And I just always kind of look forward to it." The New Balance athlete sees her textbook hurdling as a strength she can use as a race-day weapon. "By having good form, I can stay a little bit more relaxed," offers Coburn in noting that energy conservation is especially important in the stop-and-go, rhythm-wrecking event that is the steeplechase. "I think a lot of Americans and Europeans just spend more time working on their form, because we need every little advantage we can get because we're often not as fast as some of our African competitors."

Coburn - who finished 11th in the 2011 World Championships, 9th in the London Olympics, did not advance to the finals in the 2013 World Championship, and finished 1st in the 2014 Continental Cup - has definite views about the newly-emerging clearance technique employed by many of the Africans: a sort of two-legged crab-like technique reminiscent of the way your neighbor's kid might hop over your garden to retrieve an errant Frisbee from your yard. She's not a big fan. "Oh, no!" exclaims Coburn in categorically rejecting this weird African hop as any sort of evolutionary advancement in barrier clearing. "We really feel confident that we are doing it [barrier clearance] properly. We have people at USATF analyze this through video analysis of hurdling. I don't think it [crab hurdling] is going to become like the Fosbury Flop where all of a sudden everybody is two-footing to the side."

Emma Coburn has watched American steeplechasing significantly improve even during the short period of time she has been a professional athlete. She is excited that 6 American steeplers - 3 men and 3 women - have advanced through the opening round to their respective final. It is an accomplishment that no USA national team has ever achieved. "Evan [Jager], Donn [Cabral], and Dan [Huling] have really been running well and I think on the men's side something is going to come together there. And on the women's side [Stephanie Garcia, Colleen Quigley, and Coburn], I think there is a young class of women steeplechasers who are ready and hungry for more. Across the board, USA steeplechasers are running "A" standards in other events. So they are legitimate athletes who are good athletes who could make world teams in other events. The whole bar is being raised and it is fun to be a part of it."

As the 25-year old American record holder looks ahead to Wednesday's world championship steeplechase final - a race that may be the most important contest of her still-young career - she is not yet set on her strategic race plan. "I don't know," admits Coburn. "I'll sit down with my coaches and talk it out and see what we think is the best tactic. I am ready for it if it's fast. I think I'm in the best shape I've ever been in. So I think I'm ready for it if someone wants to make it fast. I've been doing a lot of 1500 meter work over the years. I also think I'm ready for it if it's the sit and kick race."

America's all-time greatest woman steeplechaser - whose 9:15.59 winning time at June's outdoor national championship meet is #5 on this year's world leader board - is frank when discussing her own personal aspirations for the steeplechase final. "All year I've said that top 5 is reasonable. And people at times have said, 'Oh, you should shoot way higher than that' just because of my ranking last year," explains Coburn. "But everyone brings their "A" game to Worlds. And some of the people I was beating a year ago are running really well this year. I'll be disappointed if finish worse than 5th. And I think getting a medal is a possibility. But I think top 5 is a definite expectation. And I hope a medal can happen. But again, everyone is so on their "A" game right now so it's going to be hard to tell."

Coburn is correct in her observations about athletes bringing their "A" games to World Championships. She need not have undue concern in Wednesday's steeplechase final provided she can deliver her "A" game as well.

RunBlogRun Some photographs on this site have been reproduced with permission from runblogrun.com.