The History of the United States According to the Women’s Steeplechase

Less than thirty years ago, the steeplechase was a men’s-only event. But after years of false starts, ever-changing barriers, and water pits that simply were not there, American women have staked claim to the event. Today, Emma Coburn is a world champion and the steeple is gaining steam and popularity.

This is…

THE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES ACCORDING TO THE WOMEN’S STEEPLECHASE
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 001, June 2018

Written by: Liam Boylan-Pett
Edited by: Ali Nolan
Illustrations by: Bobby Peavey
Original photography by: Aric Van Halen
Copy-editing by: Ashley Higginson
Photos courtesy of Penn State University and USATF

“As you ride in a steeplechase, and you’re on the horse, going quite fast, you think, ‘That’s quite a big fence…’ But trust the horse, and don’t give him any reason to doubt you.”
– Victoria Pendleton

Prologue 2017

This is the hurdle Emma Coburn has been waiting for—the final water jump of the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2017 World Track and Field Championships. She is in medal contention with less than two-hundred meters to go, but she is not focused on that right now, or the fact that fellow American Courtney Frerichs is also in position for a medal. Coburn is dead set on one thing: Nailing this final water jump.

She has been for a while now. It was a poor leap over the last water barrier in the 2015 world championships that cost her a medal, and a fatigued, sloppy jump in the 2016 Olympic Games that left her in third place. As she approaches the water pit in London, however, she is ready. All year, both mentally and physically, Coburn has been hammering the importance of this hurdle into her psyche.

Cutting in from the standard curve of the track to take the water jump, Coburn sees an inside path open up and takes the line. “Have intention,” she thinks to herself as she leads with her left leg into a jump that will decide her fate.

The intention shows: Coburn’s left foot briefly makes contact with the barrier and it shoots off quickly as her trail leg comes forward. She launches off and her right foot lands in the water at the edge of the pit as her left knee pistons ahead in an instant. She is out of the water immediately and sprinting, sprinting away from the field and towards one last hurdle and a world championship that few would have thought possible even fifty meters ago.

Even more impossible, perhaps, is Frerichs, on her heels in second. With just a straightaway to go, the United States holds the top two spots in the women’s steeplechase at the world championships.

To understand how we ended up in this situation—how the United States, who had won only one global medal in the women’s steeplechase (not to mention, only eleven on the men’s side since 1900), had two runners leading the 2017 world championships with less than one-hundred-fifty meters to go—you have to go back to 1991, when American women finally had a chance to race for a national title in that odd, nearly two-mile event made for horses with immovable hurdles and water jumps.

And to get to 1991, you have to go even further back—to July 15, 1900, when Canada’s George Orton spent most of the Paris Olympic steeplechase in fourth place. Running on a 500-meter track, he sat back of the leaders, jumping the standard hurdles, stone fences, and a water jump. Entering the homestretch of the fifth lap, Orton took off, sprinting past the top three competitors to take the tape in 7 minutes and 34.5 seconds to become the first Olympic steeplechase champion, and he did it by winning the 2,500-meter edition of the race. The next day, he came back to win bronze in the 4,000-meter steeplechase, running eight laps to win his second medal of The Games.

That’s right, in the 1900 Olympics, there were two men’s steeplechases. Women, meanwhile, would have to wait one-hundred-and-eight years for an opportunity at even one. Fortunately, American women had to wait only ninety-one years after Orton’s inaugural gold-medal run for a national championship in the event.

Teressa DiPerna was ready to jump at the opportunity.

1991 Beginnings

“I always thought the steeplechase was a really cool event,” DiPerna says today, “and I wondered why the women didn’t have it.”

Teressa DiPerna races for Penn State before her steeplechase days. Photo courtesy of Penn State Athletics

In 1991, DiPerna had just graduated from Penn State University and was still pursuing a competitive running career in the State College area. The New Jersey-native was primarily an 800-meter runner, but she had run some cross-country, and when her coach Terri Jordan found out there was going to be a women’s steeplechase at the 1991 U.S. Championships, she immediately thought of DiPerna. It was that combination of speed from the 800 and toughness from cross-country that would bode well for her in the steeple, Jordan thought. The steeplechase was an event for tough athletes, and DiPerna fit the description.

DiPerna, too, was game. She soon discovered she had the difficult task of not only learning a new event, but learning a new event that was always changing. The steeplechase had made appearances in the U.S. at meets like the “World Veterans Championship” in Eugene, Oregon, in 1989, but it was new to nearly every woman giving it a try in the lead-up to the 1991 national championship. DiPerna and others hopscotched around the United States running the steeplechase, but they never really knew what they were getting themselves into. The distance was a consistent 2,000 meters, but the hurdle height and what they would face at the water jump was anyone’s guess. “We flew all over the country trying to get women to run the steeplechase,” DiPerna says. “Then when we would get there, we’d never know what to expect.”

One track would use thirty-six-inch hurdles (the standard height for men and, at the time, women) the entire way around the track. Another would have four thirty-inch hurdles paired with a thirty-six-inch water barrier. DiPerna says that at one race at the University of Southern California, her and her competitors had to step up onto a six-inch platform that led into the water barrier—one small hurdle to get to another, taller hurdle.

The steeplechase had growing pains when it was first introduced as a men’s event, too. After the two steeples in the 1900 Games, men raced only one steeple in 1904, a 2,590-meter race. Great Britain’s Arthur Russell won the 3,200-meter steeple in 1908, then the Olympics took a twelve-year break from the event. It returned in 1920, when Percy Hodge of Great Britain won the first 3,000-meter version of the race. The event would not change much aside from in 1932, when, due to a lap-counting error that added an extra circuit to the race, Vomari Iso-Hollo of Finland won the only 3,460-meter steeple in Olympic history. It was not until 1954 that official rules were established. At that point, the world records were reset so that all would be uniform moving forward.

At least the men were running. Just like at the turn of the century for men in 1991, women, too, were learning on the fly. Practicing over differing hurdle heights and water pits did not deter the twenty to thirty women around the country giving the steeple a try.

On June 15, 1991—after many attempts over many different racetracks—DiPerna, Marisa Sutera, Martha Obidinski, Kacie Holt, and Lauri Black toed the start line of the Downing Stadium track on Randall’s Island in New York City for the first ever women’s steeplechase at a U.S. Track and Field Championship. Racing on the same track where Michael Johnson won the national title in the 200 meters and Suzy Favor Hamilton took the 1500 meters—and where the top three in other events qualified for that summer’s world championships in Tokyo—the five women attacked four hurdles and one water jump per lap over 2,000 meters.

Like today, the water jump was the main attraction. The water pit is like a combination of the ballet and roller derby—graceful athletes leap off a barrier, then crash into one another and splash into the water, sometimes falling headfirst. It is beauty and it is brawn. DiPerna heard the click, click, click of photographers capturing her every move as she leapt the barrier and splashed into the pit in New York. She controlled the race from the gun and went on to win by eight seconds in 7 minutes and 12.76 seconds over Sutera in second and Obidinksi in third. With that, she was the first woman to ever win a national title in the steeplechase.

There was little fanfare. Newspapers listed her name in the results, but she was not greeted by a throng of reporters at the finish line. Photographers did not publish those photos they clicked from the water pit. While athletes in other events immediately started thinking about the world championships, DiPerna was very pleased with her race, but that was about it. She wasn’t sized for a new “U.S.A.” singlet to wear at the world championships.

“I didn’t really think about the whole idea of the history and being a pioneer,” DiPerna says today. She was just glad the steeplechase existed for women, and she hoped that it would become more common. Along with a few coaches and Dr. James Fields, a steeplechase aficionado, DiPerna started lobbying. They sent letters to officials and meet directors asking them to hold steeplechases. She wanted to run as much as possible.

Even if there was not going to be a global championship, DiPerna, at the very least, wanted some consistency. “We were low on the totem pole,” she says. “I don’t think a lot of thought was given to the event.”

1992 to 1995 Hurdles to Overcome

Gina Wilbanks ran back and forth in the yard of the rental house she lived in near Campbell University in Buies Creek, North Carolina. She had taken a few gas barrels in the yard and turned them on their sides, and she was hurdling them. This was not a Rocky appreciation, Wilbanks was training to run the steeplechase. It was working.

After qualifying for the 1992 national championship with the fastest time in the country at a race in State College in the spring of 1992, Wilbanks went out conservatively in hot and humid New Orleans at the exhibition steeplechase event during the 1992 Olympic Trials. Wilbanks slowly moved up through the pack as the race wore on, methodically passing her competitors who had gone out too quickly throughout the second half of the race. The field had twelve runners compared to the five who ran in 1991, and the top five were running at the same pace that gave DiPerna an eight-second win the year before.

With 400 meters to go, Wilbanks was even with Barbara Bolden (DiPerna would end up finishing fourth in 1992). Then Bolden sprinted away. “I remember thinking, ‘You can have it,’” Wilbanks says today. But with 200 meters to go, she had stayed close enough to Bolden. Then, “I just took off,” Wilbanks says. She powered away over the final water barrier and through the homestraight, beating Bolden by just over three seconds in a winning time of 6 minutes and 57.61 seconds.

It was an exhibition race, but still the Olympic Trials. Wilbanks was given a tiny American flag. Fans thought she was going to the Barcelona Olympics. “I kind of just laughed at it,” she says. “It was too much to explain that it was just an exhibition event, so I just thanked everyone.”

At that point, however, Wilbanks hoped and wanted the steeple to turn into more than an exhibition. “In 1992, they were hoping that they could make the steeplechase an Olympic event in 1996,” she says, then laughs incredulously, thinking about how foolish she was to believe it to be true.

(The women’s steeplechase would not be an Olympic event four years later.)

Wilbanks struggled with plantar fascia problems in 1993 and didn’t run at nationals that year. Sutera, who finished second in 1991 and sixth the following year, won in 7 minutes and 27.30 seconds over a four-woman field. Wilbanks was back the following year for the U.S. Track and Field Championships in Knoxville, and the event that she hoped would be in the Olympics by 1996 was moving backwards.

Wilbanks won again in 6 minutes and 58.85 seconds—just edging out Sutera, who was two seconds behind—on a sticky, humid day, but the track in Knoxville did not have a water pit for the women’s race. Instead, officials splashed some water after one of the hurdles to create a water pit of sorts. There was no slope to the pit, however. The women were running through what was essentially a puddle. If anyone thought the women’s steeple was making strides, this was a giant step back.

Dr. James Fields was well aware of the problems facing the women’s steeple. Fields was and is the U.S.’s foremost women’s steeplechase expert. He is the creator of the “Women’s Steeplechase Report,” a newsletter he started in 1996 to share steeplechase news and results from around the world. In 2004, he teamed up with Ann Gaffigan to create Steeplechics.com, a website with troves of information on the women’s steeplechase from 1991 to 2006. As Fields showed: From the introduction of the event at the U.S. Championships in 1991 until 2001, the official rules of the women’s steeplechase meandered thanks to changes in the rulesbooks of United States of America Track and Field (U.S.A.T.F.) and the International Association of Athletics Federations (I.A.A.F.).

The water pit was the most debated subject in these early days. The setup for the men—thirty-six-inch hurdles paired with a twelve-foot long water pit—had been studied and settled upon as the perfect pairing for athletes to jump off of the hurdle and out into the water pit. Those dimensions were the official measurements for the women’s steeplechase until 1994. In 1995, the hurdle height was changed to thirty inches, and the distance of the race was extended from 2,000 to 3,000 meters. DiPerna thinks this was the cause of the water pit fiasco of 1994—official rules were in flux, so no one knew exactly how to proceed.

More changes were on the way, however. If the height of the hurdle was lowered, wouldn’t it also make sense to shorten the length of the water pit? In 1999, the official steeple pit for women was shortened by two feet. While this made sense in theory, it meant that water pits all over the country and the world would need to be upgraded so that the barrier could be moved forward in the water pit to provide the optimal jumping height for events holding both a men’s and women’s steeple. It was, unfortunately, a drastic solution that would be almost impossible to carry out.  

By 2001, because so few track facilities were able to adopt the new rule for water-pit length, the U.S.A.T.F. and I.A.A.F. changed their rulebooks to extend the water pit to twelve feet for the women. Aside from a few departures from the rule—the 2001 U.S.A.T.F. Junior Championships had an 11-foot, 6-inch barrier—those rules have been in place ever since.

In 1995, however, the women were one year removed from a puddle for a water pit, and they were going up in distance to 3,000 meters. Chris Morgan won in 10 minutes and 51.92 seconds. Melissa Teemant was second in 10 minutes and 59.60 seconds. Teemant was a sophomore at Brigham Young University.

Her finish was a glimpse of what was to come from the Utah school that would soon dominate an event on the verge of finding its footing.

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1996 to 2005 Going International

In 1996, Courtney Pugmire won the national championship in the steeplechase. In 1997, it was Melissa Teemant. Courtney Meldrum (née Pugmire) won in 1998. Elizabeth Jackson won in 1999 and 2000. Meldrum, Teemant, and Jackson all ran for B.Y.U. Over five consecutive years, a runner from the Utah school won the steeplechase national title. Then, in 2001, Lisa Nye finally ended the streak. Jackson, however, went on to win again in 2002—although she was running professionally at that point. B.Y.U. women were to the U.S. steeple what Jamaicans were to sprints in the late 2000s.

Jackson was the biggest star. She was a dancer throughout her youth and only started running as a junior at East High School in Salt Lake City. She excelled in the 800 meters and the mile, and when she matriculated to B.Y.U., Coach Patrick Shane was building his steeplechase dynasty. He had competed in the steeple as an athlete himself, and at B.Y.U. he developed a group of athletes eager to take over a new event. Jackson came into school hoping to impress her coach and teammates in any way she could—and she wanted to give the steeplechase a try. “[Coach Shane] had us doing some drills, and it just came naturally,” she says today. “The rhythm of running up to it and timing it correctly—I think my dance background really helped me.”

In 1997, the N.C.A.A. did not hold a steeplechase, so she ran at an exhibition event and qualified for the U.S. Championships. There, at the biggest meet of her life, she could barely control her nerves. “I was racing with Melissa Teemant,” Jackson says, “and I idolized her. She was so cute and nice, and I just thought, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s amazing.’ I was in awe of everybody.” Pre-race nerves followed her everywhere; she says she never had as much confidence as she should have had. Until the gun went off, that is. Then, all her fears would disappear. Teemant had taken second at the 1995 U.S. Championships, and Shane gave Jackson the race plan of sticking on her as long as possible. As Jackson describes it, she did exactly that. Teemant pulled away and would win in 10 minutes and 30.90 seconds, but right when Jackson felt like her race was falling apart, all of a sudden there was only four-hundred meters to go. She thought, “Oh, I can do this.” She held on to take second in 10 minutes and 38.72 seconds. Jackson soon became a star, setting the American Record multiple times, and in 2001 she won the first N.C.A.A. steeplechase in history as a senior at B.Y.U.

“I don’t think I thought about it being historic,” she says. “I was just thrilled I won. I was really happy and excited that it was an event. The steeplechase was my favorite event, and I would have been so sad to have missed it if they would have added it after I graduated.”

Jackson was second at the national championships in 2002. Then in 2003, the University of Toledo’s Briana Shook joined the steeplechase party. She won the U.S. championship in 2003 in 9 minutes and 44.71 seconds, and as soon as the gun went off in the 2004 Olympic Trials exhibition race, she shot straight to the lead. Over the first hurdle and into the backstretch her lead grew as she approached the first water jump. Then something funny happened: Shook forgot to cut in to take the water jump. She ran the normal curve of the track, skipping the hurdle completely. Despite the rest of the field cutting the corner and taking the leap over the pit, Shook made it around the turn before them and continued to extend her lead. It grew and grew, but it was all for naught—she would be disqualified for skipping the first water jump. Her time of 9 minutes and 31.98 seconds would not stand, and it would have been an American Record. Jackson ran only okay by her standards, finishing in 9 minutes and 52.11 seconds

Behind Shook in second, Ann Gaffigan, a senior at the University of Nebraska, had the race of her life, but she didn’t know what happened. She ran 9 minutes and 39.35 seconds—a nearly twenty-second best—for what she thought was second place. “I collapsed when I finished the race,” Gaffigan says. “Somebody helped me up, and I had to ask them if I won because I didn’t know if [Shook] was disqualified.” They told her she was likely the winner. Shook was upset. Unlike in 1992 and 1996 when the winners were given American flags, Gaffigan was simply helped off the track. “It was just kind of weird, the whole experience,” Gaffigan says. She would later learn she had set the American Record. A few weeks later, Shook would break that American Record in Heusden, Belgium with a time of 9 minutes and 29.32 seconds.

The women of the steeplechase were improving, but the event was still second fiddle on the U.S. and world circuit. Gaffigan says there was still debate about the water pit and how long it should be. “We didn’t care if the pit was ten feet or twelve feet,” she says. “We just wanted to run.”

Then, to the surprise of Gaffigan and other steeplers, in October of 2004, the International Olympic Committee made an announcement: The steeplechase would be included in the 2008 Olympic Games. In January 2005, the I.A.A.F. followed suit and added the event. It would be run with twelve-foot pits, and the women would finally have a chance. For years, steeplers and proponents of the steeplechase like Dr. Fields had hoped the event would be put on equal footing with the men. In 2005, it finally happened.

At the age of twenty-seven, Jackson, who already had three national titles to her name, was in the mix with two laps to go at the 2005 U.S.A.T.F. Championships. For the first time, the top three finishers in the event would do more than run a victory lap at the national meet—this time the top three would head to the I.A.A.F. World Championships.

Like in 2001 when she ran at the first N.C.A.A. Championship in the steeplechase, Jackson was simply thrilled she was running. “I caught N.C.A.A.s my senior year,” Jackson says, “and I was lucky to catch the 2005 championships at the end of my career. I feel very, very happy that I got to be a part of both of those events. I would have felt like I missed out on a lot.”

And for the first time since 2002, she fought to a win, outlasting Lisa Aguilera, 9 minutes and 39.78 seconds to 9 minutes and 40.58 seconds. Carrie Messner finished third in 9 minutes 41.37 seconds, beating American Record holder Shook to take the third and final spot of the first Team U.S.A. steeple contingent that would compete at a global championship.

In Helsinki, Jackson led the Americans with a ninth-place finish, running 9 minutes and 46.72 seconds. Docus Inzikuru of Uganda won the first world championship in 9 minutes and 18.24 seconds, beating Yekaterina Volkova of Russia and Jeruto Kiptum of Kenya, who won silver and bronze, respectively.

While everyone wanted a medal, place was not the only focus at the first world championship in the women’s steeplechase. “There was relief,” Jackson says, “that, finally, we’re getting a chance at this.”

2006 to 2010 Duels in the Pit

Before she was one of the best middle-distance runners in U.S. history; before she was a four-time global medalist in the 1500 meters; and before she made her first Olympic team as a steeplechaser in 2008, Jenny Simpson was a freshman named Jenny Barringer at the University of Colorado who was given a photo of a European woman hurdling a water barrier.

Jenny Simpson on her way to a ninth-place finish in the 2008 Olympic Games. Photo Courtesy of U.S.A.T.F.

She was dead set on becoming a 5,000-meter runner, but the team had the event covered heading into the 2006 outdoor season. “The best chance you have to help us at conference is in the steeplechase,” her coach Mark Wetmore told her. “If you try it and you hate it,” he said, “you don’t have to do it anymore.” There were no iPhones to share hurdle technique on, so instead he gave Simpson a photo to study. They worked hard to match it, but looking back on it now, Simpson knows it was rudimentary.

Going through the Florida high school system and rarely seeing the event because it was not in the Olympics, Simpson did not know what she was getting herself into other than that photo. (To this day, many states do not hold a steeplechase for boys or girls at state meets.) But in her first attempt at the steeplechase, she ran 10 minutes and 19.08 seconds to take sixth at the Stanford Cardinal Invitational. She hated it. And she did not want to run it again.

Wetmore, however, had other ideas. “You’re good enough to at least run the steeple at conference,” he said. So, she ran at conference, and took second in 10 minutes and 21.90 seconds. Wetmore sat her down again. “Your best chance to make N.C.A.A.s,” he told her, “is to stay in the steeple.” He was right. Simpson won the Midwest Regional in 10 minutes and 26.04 seconds. Then two weeks later she went and won the N.C.A.A. championship in 9 minutes and 53.04 seconds. Her progression was almost inconceivable.

Simpson did not run the event at the U.S.A.T.F. National Championships that year, but her time was faster than Lisa Aguilera’s winning time of 9 minutes and 57.58 seconds in Indianapolis.

She became the new American steeplechase star. And there was another on the way.

“Am I going to drown?” Anna Willard asked. She was kind of joking, but she was extremely nervous about her first steeplechase and the water barrier. It was 2005. As a junior at Brown University she had put all of her focus into the 800 and 1,500 meters. She had improved since high school, but not to the level she wanted. So, when a teammate in the steeplechase sustained a season-ending injury, Willard decided to give it a try—even if she had her trepidations regarding the water pit.

John Gregorek, a steeplechase Olympian in 1976, was the men’s coach at Brown at the time, and he took the time to offer Willard advice on the water pit. “You need to stay aggressive into each hurdle,” he told her. “It doesn’t matter if the pace is slowing, you have to keep attacking the hurdles.” She wasn’t quite able to pull it off in her first attempt—she ran “something like 10 minutes and 53 seconds,” she says—but Gregorek’s advice that stayed with her throughout her career.

Plus, she set a school record. Willard knew that did not mean much when the event was so new, but, she felt like she found her place in track. She did not have the same meteoric rise in the event as Simpson would one year later, but Willard showed flashes of brilliance. She took third at the Heptagonal Championships (the Ivy League Championships) and qualified for regionals, but that was where her season ended. She felt pleased with her performances. Then Craig Lake showed up.

Lake was hired as Brown’s coach that summer, and with her hiring came a broadening of Willard’s expectations. “It was never even on my radar to go to nationals,” Willard says. Making the regional meet seemed good enough, but not for Lake. She immediately got into Willard’s ear about qualifying for that year’s N.C.A.A. meet. Willard bought in. All year she focused on improving not only in the steeplechase, but as a runner on the whole. The steeplechase was where she saw the biggest gains.

Her senior year Willard won Heps, qualified for nationals, and then took sixth behind Barringer at the N.C.A.A. championships in 10 minutes and 6.83 seconds. She felt like she was just scratching the surface. She had extra eligibility because of an injury early in her career at Brown, so she took her talents to Ann Arbor and the University of Michigan for her fifth year. With only a season of outdoor track to compete for the Wolverines, Willard spent all fall and winter doing her best to keep up with the talented Michigan track team. The would-be Olympian in the 800 meters, Geena Gall, would drop her in a speed work. The next workout, Nicole Edwards, another future Olympian for Canada, would pull away from her on a tempo run. Willard never relented. She kept her eyes on her competitors, who were competing in cross-country and indoor track, and focused on what it was going to take to beat them. She had a massive calendar hanging on her wall—an “intense checklist,” she calls it—with her goals throughout the season listed. The last goal on the list was a big one: “I wanted to win the national title,” she says, “and I wanted to break the N.C.A.A. record.”

The focus and new training group paid off. Willard had a dream season at Michigan. She was on the winning 4 x 800-meter and 4 x 1,500-meter relay teams that dominated Penn Relays and won the 1,500 meters, 5,000 meters, and steeplechase at the Big 10 Championships. She was ready to do battle with Colorado’s Simpson at the N.C.A.A. meet, but Simpson lost her shoe early in the race, and faded to seventh place the year after winning as a freshman. Willard took advantage and pulled away from the field over the final laps. She ran 9 minutes and 38.08 seconds. It was good enough to finish off her checklist: She was an N.C.A.A. champ, and she set a new N.C.A.A. record.

Two weeks after winning the N.C.A.A. championship by six seconds, Willard was sprinting down the homestretch at the U.S.A.T.F. National Championships trying to catch Simpson. “I hadn’t been pushed hard this year,” Willard said after the race, “but she pushed me.” She pushed her to the edge as Willard ran out of room before the finishing tape. Simpson avenged her shoe snafu at N.C.A.A.s with a 0.08-second win over Willard in 9 minutes and 34.64 seconds. Along with Lindsey Anderson, who was third, Simpson and Willard qualified for the world championships in Osaka. Russia’s Yekaterina Volkova would win in 9 minutes and 6.57 seconds to set a meet record. (Vokova would later be part of the Russia doping scandal, and her 2008 Olympic bronze would be stripped, but her 2007 result remains.) It was a disheartening yet inspiring experience—U.S. runners had underachieved, but they were eager to head into 2008 and the first Olympic steeplechase ready to represent on the international stage.

“It blows my mind looking back on it,” Simpson says. “It’s crazy that it took that long to get the steeplechase into the Olympics.” In 2008, however, women were finally getting their chance.

Simpson, Willard, Anderson, and Lisa Aguilera, who set the American Record at 9 minutes and 28.75 seconds in July 2007, were the favorites to make the team. Simpson and Willard had their eyes on more than just that, however. They wanted to set American Records, too. Simpson nearly did it at all by herself the N.C.A.A. Championship, running 9 minutes and 29.20 seconds to win by twenty-six seconds.

Anna Willard races in the first women’s Olympic steeplechase. Photo courtesy of U.S.A.T.F.

Willard was waiting in the wings at the Olympic Trials. With Barringer pushing the pace for the majority of the race, Willard bided her time until 600 meters to go, when she felt “fantastic,” and couldn’t wait any longer. She burst to the lead and powered away over the final water barrier—not drowning, of course—and ran to a decisive victory to become the first American woman to win a non-exhibition race at the U.S. Olympic Trials. She finished in 9 minutes and 27.59 seconds to break the American Record. Anderson moved up to cross in second in 9 minutes and 30.75 seconds and Simpson finished out the first women’s Olympic steeplechase team in third in 9 minutes and 33.11 seconds.

Sixteen years earlier, fans thought Gina Wilbanks had made the Olympic Team as she walked around with her flag. Same goes for Courtney Meldrum in 1996, Elizabeth Jackson in 2000, and Ann Gaffigan in 2004. This time, however, it was real. For the first time, the women of the steeplechase were given small American flags and ran a victory lap around the famed Hayward Field track in Eugene, Oregon as future Olympians. They posed in the water pit for photos that would be used in papers like the Orlando Sentinel and Lansing State Journal. Sure, they didn’t quite get the coverage of Tyson Gay or Sanya Richards, but compared to when Teressa Diperna won the first U.S. title in 1991, they were superstars. Like DiPerna, they were making history.

“The Olympics are pretty cool on their own,” Willard said when asked what it meant to be one of the steeplechase’s first Olympians, “this is a pretty neat addition.”

“I’m not going to sleep tonight,” Simpson said, “because I’m worried I’ll wake up and it won’t have really happened.”

But there was not much time to rest—the first women’s steeplechase team had to get ready for Beijing. Plus, Willard and Simpson wanted to lower the American Record.

Less than three weeks after making the Olympic team, Simpson and Willard were across the Atlantic Ocean battling on the track in Heusden, Belgium. They were flying. At the Olympic Trials, Simpson led much of the race. On this day, Willard, with a streak of pink flashing through her dyed blonde hair, sat behind the pacers and took control of the race about halfway into the race. Simpson, still in her Colorado singlet, sat on her shoulder with three laps to go as they started to pull away from the rest of the field. They separated from the field even further over the final three circuits, picking up the pace and attacking each water barrier. Their abilities in the event were on full display.

“I think it requires such a balance of skills,” Willard says today. “You have to be fast. You have to be strong. You have to have flexibility to go over thirty-five hurdles and handle those impacts—da-doosh da-doosh da-doosh. You’re talking about a specific person—that’s a unique athlete. The last four laps your legs get heavy. If you start to have bad hurdles, mentally, things can go awry. To be able to weather storm mentally you have to battle it out. The steeplechase is just multidimensional. It’s really hard.”

On that day in Belgium, she made it look easy. Simpson did too. With four-hundred meters to go, Willard had a five-meter lead that seemed to grow ever so slowly heading into the final water jump. With 110 meters to go, the lead was up to eight meters. Willard, it seemed, thought she had the race won. Then, Simpson burst out of the final hurdle and started sprinting in earnest as the stands began to buzz. In the final 30 meters she reeled in Willard, the crowd’s rumble ever-growing the closer she inched up to and then passed Willard in the race’s final steps. Willard did not even have time to react. Simpson won in 9 minutes and 22.73 seconds. Willard finished just 0.03 seconds back in 9 minutes and 22.76 seconds. Simpson had her first American Record.

She would go on to break it again in the Olympics in Beijing, running 9 minutes and 22.26 seconds, good enough for ninth place. Willard finished three seconds back in tenth. A step in the right direction compared to the year before, but still neither American was close to Russia’s Gulnara Samitova-Galkina, who won in a World Record of 8 minutes and 58.81 seconds.

For Willard, the Beijing final would be her final appearance in a global championship in the steeple. The next year she would finish second at the U.S. Championships, but she would also finish third in the 1,500 meters and run in the flat event at the world championships in Berlin. Willard always like the shorter distances, and now that she was world class in the 800 and 1,500 meters, that was where she wanted to be. She made an attempt to come back in the steeplechase in 2014, but could not find her old magic. “I realized how hard it is and how much work I had put into getting to that level,” she says now. “You can’t just step away from it and get back into it. The hurdles crushed me.”

Willard’s legacy in the event remains. She was the first woman to ever qualify for the Olympics as a steepler. And while she didn’t win a global medal in the event, she inched the country closer to relevance. “It was great to bring legitimacy to event,” Willard says today. “Looking back on it now I feel a little bit more honored. When you’re in it you don’t give a shit about the history.”

Even with Willard gone, Simpson was not done with the event just yet. Today, Simpson seems like the perfect runner, personified. She lives her life like an inspirational poster, racing bravely and saying all the right things. That personification was there prior to her senior year at Colorado, but she lived it in 2009, training at a higher level and somehow racing better each time she stepped on the track.

Her senior season at Colorado was one of the best in collegiate history. Simpson N.C.A.A. record of 3 minutes and 59.90 seconds in the 1500 meters at the Prefontaine Classic in May. Then she ran 9 minutes and 25.54 to win her third N.C.A.A. crown and set the N.C.A.A. meet record in June. Then she won the U.S. title in 9 minutes 29.38 seconds. Unlike prior to the Olympics, Simpson did not run a steeplechase in Europe that summer. Instead, she went into the 2009 I.A.A.F. World Championships in Berlin ready to make a splash on the international stage.

Simpson bided her time early in the race as the leaders ran the first two kilometers in 6 minutes and 5 seconds. She wasn’t far behind and was picking up steam. With two laps to go Simpson was fighting with one other runner for tenth place. With four-hundred meters remaining, she had moved up into eighth and was closing in on the lead pack of seven. In the final straightaway she passed two Kenyans and ran through the line to inch past Habiba Gribi in the final step of the race. Simpson finished in 9 minutes and 12.50 seconds, setting a new American Record with a nearly ten-second personal best. And she took fifth place. It was the highest an American woman had ever finished in the steeplechase at a global championship.

Like Willard, however, Simpson would soon be leaving the steeplechase, too. This would be her final global championship in the event. She would go on to win the 2011 world championship in the 1,500 meters and win three more medals in the event, including a silver in Rio in 2016, but that fifth-place finish in Berlin in 2009 is something that Simpson still thinks about. “That race means more to me than I think people could ever realize,” she says.

Spain’s Marta Domínguez won that day, but later tested positive for a banned substance and has been disqualified from the event, moving Simpson up to fourth place—the I.A.A.F even sent Simpson a note telling her precisely that. Russia’s Yuliya Zaripova was second, but she was part of the Russian doping scandal and is currently banned from competing. The I.A.A.F has made no announcement about her place in the 2009 steeplechase, however. If it did, Simpson would move up into third place. “I’m not holding my breath,” Simpson says, “but there’s a possibility. I had this really great journey with the steeplechase. It would be amazing to have a medal from that experience and to have contributed that to the event.”

Without Simpson or Willard, however, American steeplechasing took a hit in 2010. Lisa Aguilera, the same Aguilera that qualified for the first international steeplechase team in 2005 and won the U.S. championship in 2006, won in 9 minutes and 53.59 seconds. It was the first time the winning time in the steeplechase was slower than 9 minutes and 40 seconds since she had won the title in 2006.

Help, however, was on the way. That year, a sophomore from Colorado named Emma Coburn finished second at the N.C.A.A. Championships in 9 minutes and 51.86 seconds.

2011 to 2016 The Arrival

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As a kid, Coburn did not like running. She joined the track team in sixth grade because the Coburns had a rule that you had to compete in a sport each season, and track was the only option in the spring in a small town like Crested Butte, Colorado. “I was good at it,” she says, “so that’s why I did it.” All through high school she ran cross-country, played basketball and volleyball, and then would sign up for track in the spring again, but it wasn’t until she met Joe Bosshard her junior year that she really started enjoying the sport.

Bosshard moved to Crested Butte from Wisconsin to attend the Crested Butte Academy (Coburn was at Crested Butte Community School), but they both worked with the same coach. Coburn developed a crush on Bosshard, who loved to run. “That’s when I realized running is cool,” she laughs. Soon, she started enjoying the process and seeing that runners could push themselves to powerful things. And even though she continued playing volleyball and basketball, she started identifying as a runner.

Eventually, she became a steepler, but only because she and her dad felt like it was a waste to drive eight hours just to run a two-minute race. They were going to the Great Southwest Classic in Albuquerque to run the 800-meters. Why not add in one more event? Looking at the schedule, the 2,000-meter steeplechase would make for a manageable double, so Coburn, who remembered seeing the water jump at a meet before, signed up. Then, she went to Western State Colorado University’s track to practice hurdling. She ran one loop with one of the college runners and kept up for what she says was “probably a ninety-second lap.” She loved it. “I just remember going over the water jump and feeling like, ‘Oh, this is exciting. It’s kind of like volleyball or a layup.’ It clicked right away.”

It clicked in the race, too. Coburn won and qualified for the 2007 Nike Outdoor Nationals, where she would take fourth in 6 minutes and 47.39 seconds, a time that would have won every U.S. steeplechase championship contested over 2,000 meters in the 1990s. It was at Nike Outdoor Nationals that she met Colorado coach Mark Wetmore and assistant coach Heather Burroughs. She went on to take second at Nike Outdoor Nationals the following year in 6 minutes and 44.42 seconds, and matriculated to the University of Colorado that fall, where Jenny Simpson was about to embark on her own magical senior season.

Coburn couldn’t keep up at first—she took eleventh as a freshman in the 2009 N.C.A.A. Championships where Simpson had set the meet record. But eventually she set her sights on Simpson’s records. Coburn says she did not like running when she was a kid, but now her competitive side that so naturally showed on the basketball and volleyball court was taking center stage on the track. She wanted to be the best at this—especially now that she liked it so much. In 2010, she took second at N.C.A.A.s, then in 2011 she made a jump that would change the trajectory of her running career.

At an early-season Stanford race she ran 9 minutes and 40.51 seconds to dip under the world championships qualifying standard. It was the No. 1 time in country at the time, and it made her realize that she was pretty good at this steeplechase thing. Almost immediately, her goals changed. She started thinking about running beyond college and about competing on the international stage. She was confident, and it showed. She won the N.C.A.A. title in 9 minutes and 41.14 seconds and then held off Bridget Franek and Delilah DiCrescenzo to win the U.S. Championship in 9 minutes and 44.11 seconds. With that, she qualified for the world championships in Daegu, South Korea. Like other Americans making their first trip to a world championship, Coburn struggled. She finished ninth in the world in 9 minutes and 51.40 seconds. Like other Americans, she wanted to come back and prove herself at a global championship. She knew she had to do it incrementally.

When Coburn won the 2012 Olympic Trials in 9 minutes and 32.78 seconds, it was the first step in turning into a player on the international scene. She had redshirted that year at Colorado to live life like a professional athlete, and it paid off. In London, she made the final and finished eighth in a personal best of 9 minutes and 23.54 seconds.

She competed for Colorado again in 2013 and won another N.C.A.A. title, but suffered a lower back injury that kept her out of that year’s U.S.A.T.F. Championship meet. Nicole Bush won in 9 minutes and 44.53 seconds. But no American athlete who competed at the 2013 I.A.A.F. World Championships in Moscow made the steeplechase final. Since Simpson’s fifth-place finish and American Record in 2009, U.S. steeplechasers had plummeted. In 2013, Coburn returned from injury and subsequently altered the trajectory of the women’s steeplechase.

When the pacemaker stepped off the track after one kilometer in the Shanghai Diamond League steeplechase in 2014, Coburn found herself with a massive lead. The only one to go with the rabbit, she didn’t panic or slow, she kept pushing the pace. In her first steeplechase since the 2013 N.C.A.A. Championships, running 9-minute-20-second pace did not feel too quick. Distancing herself from the field, she looked like she had broken away from the peloton in the Tour de France, waiting to get caught. But they would not reel her in—the chase pack waited too long, and Coburn went on to become the first U.S. athlete—male or female—to win a Diamond League race in the steeplechase, running a best of 9 minutes and 19.80 seconds to become the second American under 9 minutes and 20 seconds.

The run immediately forced other American women to up their games. Coburn won that year’s U.S. Championship in Sacramento in 9 minutes 19.72 seconds. Ashley Higginson, who had taken second the year before when Coburn was not in the field, ran nearly twenty seconds faster to take second in 9 minutes and 27.59 seconds, a top-ten time in U.S. history. Coburn would go on to break Simpson’s American Record, running 9 minutes and 11.42 seconds in July. (That record would never be ratified because Coburn was not drug tested after the race.) With no global championship that year, her fast times signaled she was ready to medal in 2015.

The improvements kept coming. In 2015, Coburn won her third national title in four years in a meet record of 9 minutes and 15.59 seconds as Stephanie Garcia and Colleen Quigley each broke 9 minutes 25 seconds to make the world championship team heading to Beijing. Heading into the final water jump in the world championship final, however, Coburn, who was in third place, faltered. Just as she was about to jump, two runners came up on her outside, and all three runners hit the barrier with their lead legs simultaneously. While Coburn’s form held, she did not burst from the jump like her competitors, and she slipped to fifth almost immediately. She did her best to keep up, but she overextended her energy. Her shoulders tightened and her pace slowed. She finished a well-beaten fifth over the final one-hundred meters. It was her highest finish at a global championship, but it wasn’t enough. Had she held it together on the final water jump, she knew, she could have finally won a medal.

The 2016 Olympic steeplechase should have been the culmination of the steeplechase for U.S. women. Coburn ran the race of her life to win a bronze medal in the event with an American Record of 9 minutes and 7.63 seconds. She was ecstatic as she ran a victory lap on the blue track in Brazil, blocking the sun beating down on her with an American flag draped over her shoulders. It was everything she hoped it would be. “That feeling of being on a podium,” Coburn says, “it’s very powerful. Even though it’s only five minutes of your life it really makes everything worth it. That’s what continues to motivate me.”

It could have made everything women had gone through in the steeplechase worth it, too. Twenty-five years after the first national championship in the event, and eight years after it was introduced to the Olympic Games, the U.S. finally had a medalist.

But still, the performance was imperfect, Coburn says of her final water jump in Rio. She was tired, and it wasn’t powerful like it should have been. The space between her and fourth place was vast, though, so the bronze was hers, and she knew it. She allowed herself to enjoy the moment, but was eager to continue to launch the U.S. to greater heights.

Little did steeplechase fans know that this was just the start, and it would be more than Coburn making history.

On the day Coburn won the first U.S. medal in the women’s steeplechase in Rio, Courtney Frerichs finished eleventh in her first Olympic final. Like many in the steeplechase, her rise in the event was meteoric. It seemed like every time she ran the event, her goals changed. Her freshman year at the University of Missouri Kansas City she qualified for the N.C.A.A. regional meet and, even though she didn’t qualify for the N.C.A.A. Championships, set her eyes on becoming an elite steepler. That summer she studied videos of Coburn and Simpson, with hopes that she could emulate their success.

That next year she took sixth at the N.C.A.A. meet in 9 minutes and 55.02 seconds. One year later she took sixth at the U.S. championships and in 2015 came back to take second at the N.C.A.A. title in 9 minutes and 31.36 seconds. Despite missing out on making the world championship team in 2015, it was a big year for the former gymnast. “Each year I gained more and more confidence,” Frerichs says. “And each year was a step towards getting ready for 2016.”

That summer she transferred to the University of New Mexico and, like Simpson and Coburn before her, had a dream season. She was on the national championship cross-country team and then broke the N.C.A.A. meet record in the steeple in 9 minutes and 24.41 seconds. She was second at the Olympic Trials and then finished eleventh in Rio, but she left the Olympics disappointed. “I went into Rio with no expectation but to be happy to be there,” Frerichs says. “I ran very scared. I put a lot of people on a pedestal.” But London in 2017 was fast approaching and  she promised herself it would not be the same.

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2017 All-Timers

“I had heard that Courtney was in great shape,” Coburn says of the lead up to the 2017 world championships. “People were saying she thought she was in American Record shape, so I knew she would be ready.” Frerichs felt the same. She was not going to leave London disappointed. Whether that meant a medal or not, she did not know. Coburn, meanwhile, had her eyes set on more hardware. She had won bronze in 2016, and had every intention of doing so again in London.

So, when the Americans came through the first kilometer in just over three minutes and the second in 6 minutes and 3 seconds, still in contact with the lead pack and under American Record pace, they were ready. They were ready with one lap to go, too, when they were both still in the lead pack. And they were ready when they ran onto the back straight one final time, headed toward the final water jump.

Frerichs hits the backstretch of the bell lap and moves to the outside, beginning her long, final push for home. There in the pack of five that remain are Kenya’s Hyvin Jepkemoi and Beatrice Chepkoech. The world record holder Ruth Jebet of Bahrain is there, too. Plus, the two Americans. Frerichs, who has been following Coburn throughout the race, is going for it. She pushes the pace and flies over the final hurdle before the water jump. With two-hundred meters remaining, she essentially shares the lead with Jepkemoi. Chepkoech, who nearly missed the first water pit of the day, and Jebet are broken, falling off the pace. Coburn, with her leggy, bouncing stride, is just behind Frerichs and Jepkemoi.

The two Americans have spent the previous eight-and-a-half minutes biding their time. Frerichs’ plan was simple: Stick on Coburn. For Coburn, she focused on racing. Neither worried about time—although Frerichs did nearly freak out when she saw she was through two kilometers in just over six minutes, she says—they worried about staying on the pace for as long as they possibly could.

And now, they are both focusing on the water jump. Coburn hits the barrier first, but they both power over it and launch off. Coburn shoots out of the pit with the lead, then Frerichs, who, despite a small misstep coming out of the water, beats Jepkemoi out. Coburn extends her lead as the turn straightens out, but Frerichs will not give up that much distance. She, too, is pulling away from Jepkemoi.

All around the world, friends, family, and fans of the steeplechase are screaming at their televisions. A video of Coburn’s sister and family losing their minds will eventually go viral. Simpson is in London with a silver medal of her own from the 1500 watching the Americans sprinting away. Home in the U.S., Anna Willard is screaming at her television and will eventually start crying. Ann Gaffigan, too, cannot believe what she is seeing. Teressa DiPerna is watching with her family in awe of what is transpiring.

Coburn and Frerichs are still pulling away. Throughout the race Coburn stayed calm, but once she makes it over the final hurdle, she lets herself accept what is happening—she is going to be a world champion. She cannot believe it, but she is going to get to the tape first, and Frerichs is going to finish behind her. She raises her arms as she crosses the line in 9 minutes and 2.58 seconds, an American and meet Record. Behind her, Frerichs throws her hands to her head in disbelief as she crosses in 9 minutes and 3.77 seconds, 0.26 seconds ahead of Jepkemoi.

The Americans embrace almost immediately, Frerichs’ mouth agape, and they fall to the ground, filled with shock and joy and awe.

During the victory lap, Coburn will find Joe Bosshard, the kid she had the crush on that made running cool. They’re getting married soon, but today they don’t care about that. Bosshard is Coburn’s coach now. He took over after the 2016 Olympics—they now head up to the even higher altitude of Crested Butte (7,000 feet compared to the 5,000 feet in Boulder) for training camps. They keep saying, “Did that just happen?” to one another.

For Frerichs, the result will start to sink in when she cools down by herself for a moment before drug testing. She is running small circles under the eye of a drug tester and she thinks to herself and smiles, “What is going on?”

It all seems implausible, even for the two who achieved it. But nearly thirty years after the U.S. first held a national championship in the event, American women are at the top of the steeplechase world.

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Epilogue 2018 and Beyond

There are no global championships in 2018, but U.S. women steeplers, like Coburn heading into the final water jump of the world championships, have intention.

For years, the steeplechase was an event for those not good enough at other events. Women in the steeple simply wanted a chance to run, whether with thirty-six inch hurdles or ten-foot water pits. Today, Coburn knows she is making history—and she wants to make more. Her goal is to break 9 minutes this year. Frerichs, too. “I would love to go for the American Record and break that nine-minute barrier,” she says. “I think we’re on the cusp of it and it’s going to happen any day now.”

No one is settling.

And once again, it could be more than Coburn and Frerichs making waves. Colleen Quigley, a training partner of Frerichs, missed out on last year’s world championship final after being disqualified from the preliminary round for stepping inside the line coming out of the water pit. Quigley ran 9 minutes and 15.97 seconds after the world championships and has run a world class 4 minutes and 3.93 seconds in the 1,500 meters. Leah O’Connor and Stephanie Garcia have both run under 9 minutes and 20 seconds, and the collegiates are on the verge of joining the party, too—the now 21-year-old Allie Ostrander won the 2017 N.C.A.A. steeplechase in 9 minutes and 41.31 seconds and repeated in 2018 in 9 minutes and 39.28 seconds. The steeple is getting there.

Gaffigan says she used to joke that the steeplechase was the “ugly stepchild” event of track and field. After Coburn and Frerichs, she doesn’t feel that way anymore. They are headlining Diamond League events now. Add in Evan Jager winning medals in 2016 and 2017 in the men’s steeple, and one might even consider the steeplechase cool.

It is no longer an exhibition event like it was for DiPerna, Wilbanks, and countless others. American Records aren’t coming as easily as they did for Jackson, Shook, Willard, or Simpson. The event with the hurdling and water pits is finding its footing. From DiPerna to Coburn and Frerichs and then to whoever is next, it is about more than just getting a chance to run, it is about intentionally making history.

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THE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES ACCORDING TO THE WOMEN’S STEEPLECHASE
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 001, June 2018

Written by: Liam Boylan-Pett
Edited by: Ali Nolan
Illustrations by: Bobby Peavey
Original photography by: Aric Van Halen
Copy-editing by: Ashley Higginson
Photos courtesy of Penn State University and USATF

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