David J. Phillip / Associated Press
RIO DE JANEIRO – It may be a little early to be choosing photographs for this year’s Christmas cards, but for Bill and Annie Coburn of Crested Butte, the decision was made for them Monday by their daughter Emma. And, after all, it is winter here.
Emma became the first American woman to win an Olympic medal in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, claiming bronze Monday morning while breaking her own American record.
“Oh my God, she’s wearing an Olympic medal, look at that,” said Annie, surrounded by 20 family members and friends who journeyed here to be part of Team Emma. “Our Christmas card is already set. We knew this was possibly logically, but when you see it actually happen in real life, you can’t believe it. We’re so thrilled and so proud of her.”
Emma could hear her friends and family chanting her name during the race. She had tears in her eyes while taking a celebratory lap around the track with the American flag.
“Winning an Olympic medal was never a dream of mine,” said Coburn, 25, who was born in Boulder, grew up in Crested Butte and ran for the University of Colorado where she still trains under CU coach Mark Wetmore. “It never seemed like a possibility. To have it be a reality and to have it happen today with my family here is something beyond my wildest dreams. I don’t know how to describe how I’m feeling.”
The race pace was set by gold medal winner Ruth Jebet, a native of Kenya who runs for Bahrain. Jebet ran by herself the last half of the race and was on a world record pace, which served Coburn well because it strung out the field. Jebet finished in 8:59.75, less than a second off the world record set by Gulnara Galkina-Samitova of Russia at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Hyvin Kiyeng Jepkemoi of Kenya took the silver (9:07.12) and Coburn finished strong, nearly catching Jepkemoi, to finish in 9:07.63.
The race unfolded much like the last time those three women faced each other, at the Prefontaine Classic in Oregon in May.
“I was hoping Ruth would take (the lead), because on paper we are the three fastest,” Coburn said. “I knew if Ruth pushed hard, the field would string out and that was my best chance at a medal. I was relieved when she did.”
Coburn broke the American record at Prefontaine and lowered it by 3.13 seconds here.
“My jaw dropped,” Coburn said. “I didn’t know we were running that fast. Very surprised and happy, but this was all about medals today. I knew it might take a fast time to win a medal, but I only cared about a medal.”
American teammate Colleen Quigley was recovering from her eighth-place finish when she learned Coburn had made history for U.S. track and field with her medal.
“I was sitting on the track, trying to breathe and regain my consciousness,” Quigley said. “Looking up at the board I saw the American flag and her name in third place, I kind of had to do a double-take. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she actually did it, it’s possible.’ I’m sure she’s over the moon about it, and so are we.”
Coburn ran the steeplechase at the 2012 London Olympics while still a student at CU and remained in Boulder after graduation. Now she is Wetmore’s first Olympic medalist, but she embraced that distinction with modesty, knowing fellow CU grad Jenny Simpson may well claim a medal Tuesday night in the 1,500 meters. Simpson is a two-time world championships medalist.
“It’s strange to be their first Olympic medalist,” Coburn said of Wetmore and assistant Heather Burroughs. “I feel like that’s just the luck of the order, that the steeple was before the 1,500. I really believe Jenny has a great chance to win a medal. But it definitely is a privilege to be their first Olympic medalist.”
With a series of 35 30-inch high wooden barriers to clear, the steeplechase is one of the most athletically demanding events in track, and that makes it a good fit for Coburn. The first thing her high school coach Trent Sanderson noticed about her was her athletic skills.
“She just had so much motor skills,” Sanderson said. “I used to see her running around in flip-flops in Crested Butte, just jumping around.”
Team Coburn included her sister, her sister’s husband, her older brother and his wife, her younger brother, her mom’s sister and daughter, her boyfriend (former CU runner Joe Bosshard) and his four siblings. It was a little hard for all to comprehend.
“Just beyond what we’d hoped,” said Coburn’s father, Bill. “She worked so hard, trained so hard, we all contributed. She’s awesome.”
Even her big brother, Willy, was having a hard time coming to grips with the moment.
“She was always just little Emma,” he said. “And now she’s won a bronze medal. It’s unreal.”
CU medal winners
Burdie Haldorson 1956 Summer Gold U.S. Basketball
Bob Jeangerard 1956 Summer Gold U.S. Basketball
Burdie Haldorson 1960 Summer Gold U.S. Basketball
Billy Kidd 1964 Winter Silver U.S. Skiing (Slalom)
Jimmie Heuga 1964 Winter Bronze U.S. Skiing (Slalom)
Bill Toomey 1968 Summer Gold U.S. Decathlon
Shannon Dunn 1998 Winter Bronze U.S. Snowboarding
Susan Bartholomew-Williams 2004 Summer Bronze U.S. Triathlon
Deirdre Dement-Barry 2004 Summer Silver U.S. Cycling
*Tyler Hamilton 2004 Summer Gold U.S. Cycling
Emma Coburn 2016 Summer Bronze U.S. Steeplechase
* — stripped of his medal on Aug. 10, 2012
— Courtesy of CU athletics