LONDON — Rolling on the ground, still gasping for breath, Courtney Frerichs hugged Emma Coburn and shouted into her ear: “Am I dreaming? Am I dreaming?”
Nope. That really happened.
The two Americans outran two Kenyans to the finish line Friday and ended up 1-2 in the steeplechase at the world championships for the latest improbable triumphs for a stable of U.S. long-distance runners who keep getting stronger.
Coburn finished in an American-record time of 9 minutes, 2.58 seconds, while Frerichs set a personal best at 9:03.77. These marked the first two steeplechase medals for U.S. women since the event began at the world championships in 2005. It marked the first time Americans have finished 1-2 in a women’s or men’s steeplechase at the worlds or the Olympics.
These were the fourth and fifth medals for the U.S. distance runners at the championships in London, including a bronze from Amy Cragg in the marathon, a bronze from Evan Jager in the men’s steeplechase and a silver from Jenny Simpson in the 1,500.
None was more shocking than this.
Over the decades, the U.S. has had its share of moments at the long distances that have generally been dominated by Africans: Billy Mills came out of nowhere to win gold in the 10,000 at the 1964 Olympics; Jim Ryun held world records in the 1960s and has Olympic silver from the 1,500 in 1968. More recently, Deena Kastor, Bernard Lagat and Meb Keflezighi have made headlines over the years.
One big difference: There is evidence that this most recent triumph could be more the norm than the exception.
Vin Lananna, the president of USA Track & Field, credited a long-term commitment to distance once lacking in a country that has always been more fascinated with the sprints.
“We’ve been close a lot,” Lananna said. “Then, just like anything else, eventually you push it over the edge.”
Frerichs, 24, is a member of the Portland-based Bowerman Track Club. She finished fourth at the U.S. cross-country championships in Bend in February.
Coburn, 26 and from Boulder, Colorado, whose bronze last year was the first medal of any color at the Olympics for an American woman in the steeplechase, credited an increased emphasis on having support and medical staff on hand at the biggest events.
The final sprint came down to the two Americans and two Kenyans — Beatrice Chepkoech and Hyvin Jepkemoi.
In the past, there was no doubt who would win that sort of showdown. This time, the U.S. runners came out on top, while Jepkemoi took bronze and Chepkoech finished fourth.
Coburn and Frerichs? They made history — and could barely believe it themselves.
“I was just in complete shock,” Frerichs said. “I kept thinking to myself, ‘Did this just really happen?’”