Colorado distance runners Emma Coburn and Shalaya Kipp won't allow themselves to dream of an Olympic medal being placed around their necks just yet, even though both will have a chance to earn one next month in London.
The two Buffs chose the realistic route in discussing their historic achievement and their goals for the games at a press conference on campus Monday. They are only the third and fourth CU athletes with remaining eligibility to become Olympians, but neither has come close at this early stage in their careers to running times that would earn them a medal.
"I'm trying to stay focused on what I know I can achieve and I think if either of us were to dream beyond what is attainable it wouldn't work out," Coburn said. "I think we would both fail. We're just focused on what we know we can do and what we've done in the past and I think that is the best way to go into it."
Coburn, the top U.S., qualifier, would likely have to trim at least 20 seconds off her qualifying time to be in contention for a medal. Kipp would need to cut even more off her time. Coburn, of Crested Butte, finished first at the Olympic trials earlier this month in 9:32.78 and Kipp, of Salt Lake City, was three seconds behind her in third place finishing in 9:35.73.
Gulnara Galkina-Samitova set the world and Olympic records in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at 8:58.81 four years ago in the Beijing Olympics. Former Buff Jenny Simpson participated in that race, finishing ninth in 9:22.26.
The two current Buffs realize their best shot at an Olympic medal might be four years from now in Brazil. They're both hoping to take a big step toward making that happen by doing their best with this opportunity. Both have targeted a spot in the final and personal best times as their goal for their first Olympics.
"That is my primary goal is to make the final," Coburn said. "After that, a personal best would be nice and just race my guts out and see what happens. I think if you look at the descending order list, a medal is way too far in the distance for that to be a goal of ours in the coming months."
Coburn redshirted during the track season in order to be well-rested for a run at the Olympics and possibly earning a spot in the finals. Coach Mark Wetmore dialed back the number of races Kipp participated in during the indoor season, believing that added rest might help her make a run at the Olympics. The strategy worked and allowed the Buffs to be the only college teammates Wetmore has ever heard of to qualify for the same Olympic team. The fact that they run the same event made the accomplishment even more rare.
"A confluence of luck, talent and environment that two people -- I won't say equally talented because talent packages can vary greatly but in the end it adds up to Olympic-level talent -- two people with that talent at the same school at the same time is pretty rare," Wetmore said. "Then of course Boulder and CU are excellent for a person to become a distance runner. So a lot of things came together for that to happen, but it's that rare. It's a rare, rare combination."
Kipp said the summer games weren't even on her radar until Wetmore pulled her aside late last fall and suggested it might be possible for her to make it.
"When I came to Colorado, I didn't really know what the steeplechase was," she joked. "I still thought it was a horse event."
Kipp won her first NCAA title in the steeplechase to conclude her outdoor season in early June. Both women helped the CU women's cross country team win the Pac-12 Conference title in the fall, and it has made for a long journey to the games for them.
"Our goal for Shalaya will be to be ready to run a personal best and be in contention of making the finals," CU associate head coach Heather Burroughs said. "That would be an enormous achievement for her. Probably on paper right now, she wouldn't make the finals. So our goal will be to upset those rankings and have her ready to come close or make it."
Coburn and Kipp will compete in the first week of the games and will be able to participate in the opening ceremonies. They have continued training hard in the days since they qualified and say they are feeling strong.
"Emma is impeccable technically and Shalaya has a 1,200 horsepower engine," Wetmore said. "... They come in different talent packages and they need different developments. While we're working on Shalaya's aerodynamics, we're working on Emma's horsepower."
Coburn went home to Crested Butte last weekend to decompress and relax and also do a long run at 9,000 feet. She described the Olympic trials as a business trip where she did what she was expected to last month. She will be in a decidedly different position on this next trip, trying to surprise.
"I've never been to Las Vegas, but I keep telling people it feels like I went to Vegas for the weekend and I'm kind of in daze and woke up," she said. "It's kind of been a blur so far. What I think people forget is we still have a lot of work ahead of us, and we still have races to do and training to be done. It's not just this big celebratory time in our lives right now. We both are happy and appreciative of the fact that we made it, but it's still business for us."