Emma Coburn en route to Olympic bronze in Rio (© Getty Images)
At the World Championships in London last month, Emma Coburn led a shock 1-2 finish for the US in the 3000m steeplechase, clocking 9:02.58 to break her own national record. Here Coburn reflects on the glory of climbing the podium one year earlier when she took the bronze at the 2016 Olympic Games.
“By the time of my 2016 Rio Olympic final, I knew I had been around competing on the major championship scene for a number of years. I had won some races but lost many others. Yet competing at an Olympic Games is always special whether you are a steeplechaser, a basketball player or a volleyball player. The Olympics is the peak of any athlete’s career, so to that day get the very best out of myself really stands out.
“My first exposure to the Olympic Games came aged ten watching a documentary called ‘Do You Believe in Miracles?’ about the triumphant 1980 US Olympic ice hockey team. It was a video which fired me up and inspired me. I had posters on my wall of the players and I sent fan mail to them. It was my favourite Olympic memory growing up.
“I was lucky enough to go on to qualify for the Olympic Games in London 2012. This was important to me because it was the first time I looked across the start line and felt like I truly belonged (Coburn finished eighth in London), which was a big confidence boost.
“Leading into the Rio final it was a realistic expectation for me to take third and win a medal. I recall the previous year I had finished fifth in a slow, tactical World Championships final (in Beijing) and I was gutted. My hope was to do all I could physically in Rio. So even if I finished fourth, as long as I had run 9:07, I would be happy.
“In the final with four laps to go I was fourth about 30m behind the bronze medallist Beatrice Chepkoech and experiencing a brief moment of doubt, I said to myself, ‘oh, well, fourth in the world is pretty good’. Yet almost as soon as I had this thought I realised she (Chepkoech) had stopped gaining on me and I said to myself ‘don’t think that way’.
“The race was hard. It was running at a quick pace and I was on my own, but I just had to stay strong and control the controllables and hope someone would fall back. About a lap later Beatrice’s advantage was cut in half and with 700 metres to go – right in front of a section of the stand containing the US coaches and staff who gave me a big cheer – I passed Beatrice and went into third.
“I got a real adrenaline rush from that, but I knew Beatrice had a strong kick so I said to myself, ‘don’t let off the gas’. On the final lap, I caught Hyvin (Kiyeng), the second-placed athlete, and suddenly I was in a battle for silver.
“In the end, I crossed the line in bronze having set a US record time of 9:07.63 (behind Ruth Jebet of Bahrain and Kiyeng of Kenya) and although I hate to use the term, it was a little surreal that I had won Olympic bronze. Winning a medal is something I had dreamed about and planned for with my coaching team for so long, but track is a wild sport where anything can happen, so I was just so happy and relieved. My heart ached with joy and I had chills up and down my body.
“Looking back, I’m very proud of the way I clawed my way back in the raced and stayed tough during the middle laps after I trailed the medal positions by 30 metres. To also run a US record time was special, but I know the medal will stay with me forever.”
Steve Landells for the IAAF