Matt Dunham / Associated Press
Charlie Riedel / Associated Press
As if coach Mark Wetmore’s peerless cross country and track programs at the University of Colorado haven’t already made a monumental impact over the past two decades, there also is this fact to consider.
In the entire history of the Olympics, American women have collected a total of six medals in track events longer than 800 meters. Two of those were earned in a span of about 36 hours earlier this week by CU alums Emma Coburn and Jenny Simpson.
On Wednesday, a day after Simpson earned a long-coveted medal in her third Olympics appearance, the CU campus was abuzz with both the excitement of move-in day and the awe-inspiring accomplishments of Coburn and Simpson, both of whom will be bringing bronze medals back to Boulder.
“That kind of exposure for any program is significant. People are watching from around the world,” CU athletic director Rick George said. “It was a great, great two days for CU, and more importantly for the two of them.
“I think (Wetmore) is amazingly smart. I do think people don’t know what a gem we have in him, and Heather (Burroughs) and Billy (Nelson) and that whole crew. They’ve got a great culture in their program and do a great job in their training.”
The similarities between the medal-winning efforts by Coburn and Simpson were numerous. Both athletes won their respective events earlier this summer at the U.S. Olympic Trials, with Coburn winning the 3,000-meter steeplechase and Simpson taking first in the 1,500-meter run.
Perhaps most importantly, both athletes tabbed their former college coach, Wetmore, to train them for events that ended with both Coburn and Simpson becoming the first U.S. women to medal in their respective events.
Burroughs, Wetmore’s top assistant the past 12-plus years, also played a key role in both athletes’ training. While Coburn was expected to compete for a medal, Simpson entered the Olympics ranked ninth in the world in the 1,500. Given Simpson was the USATF outdoor champion in the 1,500 in 2014 and 2015, both Wetmore and Burroughs were confident that ranking was not a precursor to how Simpson would perform in Rio.
“Jenny didn’t really have a chance to show her fitness, I don’t think,” Burroughs said. “Unless someone is a really keen observer of the U.S. Olympic Trials, they probably could have disregarded because she didn’t have a race this year where she ran particularly fast. She was the world No. 1 in ’14, and we said her training was at or ahead of where it was. We didn’t ever believe it was impossible.”
Given their affable personalities and the fact they both frequently train at Potts Field, the home turf of the CU track program, there’s a good chance those bronze medals will soon be shown off to the current crop of Buffaloes. With workouts beginning for the 2016 cross country season, Burroughs expects the international exploits of Coburn and Simpson will provide continued inspiration.
“I like to think about what it does for the athletes we have now,” Burroughs said. “They interact with them. They see them on some of their workouts. They know them face-to-face and know they are pretty normal people until they put on their uniform and they kind of become super women.
“We say to the collegians that five or 10 years ago they were just wide-eyed, hopeful college students like you guys. They have been in your shoes and have walked through this program. They’ve trained in the same places and you have every resource they had, if not more.”