Despite inexperience, CU's Coburn has excelled on the track
EUGENE, Ore. -- Emma Coburn never really fashioned herself as a runner.
Sure, she ran. And she was definitely good — really good: eight-time Colorado 2A state champion, five more Colorado state records. But through high school, she was running only about 15 miles per week while also playing basketball and volleyball.
“I had a coach who was experienced and thought I could be at an elite level, but I always did a billion other sports, so running wasn’t really a big priority of mine,” Coburn said. “Luckily the coaches [at Colorado] saw something in me and gave me a little scholarship to come to Colorado.”
It turns out all of those coaches were onto something.
On Saturday, Coburn claimed her second career steeplechase title when she ran 9:35.38 at the NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Championships. And she almost certainly would have had a third NCAA title except she took a redshirt season in 2012 to focus on the London Olympics.
“There are a lot of things necessary to be good and to stay good,” Heather Burroughs, Colorado’s middle and long distance coach, said. “She checks the boxes: talented and motivated and durable and courageous and calm and patient. It really is a long-term project.”
Coburn’s transition from multi-sport athlete at little Crested Butte Community School in western Colorado to NCAA champion and U.S. Olympian began carefully. Although Burroughs said Coburn’s total time involved in athletics actually dropped from high school to college, coaches were still careful to limit her mileage to keep her from burning out.
“It would not be impolite to say that she was not a blue-chip recruit,” Burroughs said. “She would agree with that.”
Having Jenny Simpson as a teammate that first year also proved invaluable in Coburn’s transition into full-time, high-level running. Simpson was a three-time NCAA steeplechase champion at Colorado and is now the preeminent U.S. middle-distance runner: a two-time Olympian, an American record holder in steeplechase and the 2011 world champion in the 1,500 meters.
“The times that she ran my freshman year in 2009, the spring of 2009, she set six collegiate records in indoor and outdoor, then she’d get off the track and be a normal person,” Coburn said. “It was crazy to see that you don’t have to be superwoman to run those times. I mean she is superwoman, but you don’t have to be a robot to be a good runner, and it was great to see someone who is level-headed and normal and had friends and had a boyfriend — her now husband. She had a normal life, and then was able to focus and train and really run fast times.”
Before long, Coburn was running fast times too. She ended up qualifying for the NCAA Outdoor Championships in steeplechase as a freshman in 2009 and then finishing second in the same event as a sophomore in 2010. It was after winning the NCAA steeplechase title in 2011, however, that her aspirations turned higher.
That summer, Coburn qualified for the U.S. team that competed in the World Championships in Deagu, Korea, where she made the steeplechase event final and finished 12th.
That led to a redshirt season so she could take a year off from the team-focused college meets and train for the 2012 Olympics. And upon making Team USA, Coburn lowered her time from Daegu by approximately 28 seconds in finishing ninth.
It was at that point when giving up her senior college season for a pro career would have been a perfectly reasonable decision.
“I had a lot of people ask me that, but honestly I think my coaches made a commitment to me by letting me redshirt to focus on the Olympics,” she said. “So I really had to make the commitment back to them and to honor my scholarship and my contract to say I’m coming back to CU.”
So that’s what she did. And so in March, Coburn claimed the NCAA indoor mile title, in May she graduated with a degree in marketing and this weekend she claimed her second NCAA outdoor steeplechase title.
“Time-wise and performance-, place-wise, I feel like I fulfilled everything that I came here hoping I could do,” she said. “I didn’t even think I would make varsity, so to be a national champion three times over and being a World Championships [team] member, it has to pass all my expectations and its been a really fun ride.”