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2016 Olympics: Colorado alum Emma Coburn first U.S. woman to medal in steeplechase

RIO DE JANEIRO — Emma Coburn made U.S. history earlier this week when she took the bronze medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Coburn, 25, finished the race in just over nine minutes, bringing home the first-ever U.S. women's medal in the event with a time less than 10 seconds behind the world record.

The University of Colorado graduate said she appreciated her opponents’ strength and speed because it allowed her to pace herself and get the position she knew she could achieve.

“I knew that to have a chance to medal the race had to go at a pretty fast pace, so when the eventual winner Ruth Jebet took the lead, I was relieved because I was hoping that that’s how the race would play out,” Coburn said. “I was hoping she would lead and push the pace so once she did I just tried to slowly accelerate and not make any moves that were too aggressive but just slowly reel in third place.”

Coburn also credits her college experience in Boulder with her success.

“Colorado is the reason I’m here,” she said. “My coaches, Mark (Wetmore) and Heather (Burroughs), have been invaluable in getting me here today. And my boyfriend ran at Colorado with me, and so I think that if I didn’t go to University of Colorado I wouldn’t be sitting here. Being in the Pac-12 was also great because it’s such a competitive distance-running conference.”

Coburn first tried the steeplechase, an obstacle race in which runners have to clear hurdles and water jumps, in high school. Her father had driven her from Colorado to New Mexico for one event and encouraged her to participate in another to make it worth the trip.

“So I went, and I tried it just for fun because of the schedule and ended up qualifying for high school nationals,” she said. “And that’s where my current coaches, who were my college coaches also, Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs, that’s where they saw me and started recruiting me.”

Wetmore said he believes Coburn can continue to improve.

“The first thing that impressed me about Emma was that she was ‘up for it’ — happily willing to try this new event,” Wetmore said via email. “This was when she was in high school, and had only tried one or two water jumps ever.”

Coburn said she appreciated all the supportive messages and emails she gets from home. She even shipped out 700 "Go Emma" shirts for her friends and family who were cheering her on.

[Related CU alum Jenny Simpson makes American histroy in 1500m]

When asked how she managed to reduce her previous personal best time of 9:10.76 from the Prefontaine Classic in Oregon earlier this year down to 9:07.63 at the Olympics, Coburn again praised her Bahraini opponent ,Jebet.

“I think a lot of it had to do with the winner, Ruth Jebet,” she said. “She took the lead and just started running really aggressive so I had to step up my game to try and catch her.”

The Olympics are also a place where everyone is on their absolute best performance, Coburn noted.

“The combination of me being perfectly prepared for this plus having my opponents run the way they ran really helped me get a fast time today,” she said.

The steeplechase has been an Olympic event since 1920, but the race has only been open to women since 2008.

Despite its long history, only five Team USA athletes had medaled in the event before 2016, the last being Brian Diemer, who won gold in 1984 in Los Angeles; Evan Jager also earned a silver medal for Team USA this week.

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