When she first started running the steeplechase four years ago, Courtney Frerichs didn’t hesitate to share a lofty goal with friends.
“Whenever I told them that I wanted to try to make the Olympic trials, they thought I was a little crazy,” Frerichs said. “I think I thought I was a little crazy, too.”
For good reason. As a freshman for UMKC, Frerichs’ time of 10:55 didn’t even qualify her for the NCAA Championships.
Four years later, Frerichs’ performance at Rock Chalk Park on Friday afternoon was just a reminder of how far she’s come. The Nixa, Mo., native — she’s competing for New Mexico this season — won her heat at the NCAA West Preliminary by more than 18 seconds with a time of 9:51.48.
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Bigger races are ahead. Frerichs will look to win her first outdoor national championship in Eugene, Ore., next month, and after that, she’ll prepare for the U.S. Olympic Trials on July 7. With a top-three finish, Frerichs would earn a spot on the Olympic team that’s headed to Rio de Janeiro in August.
“A lot of people will ask, ‘Oh my gosh. Are you going to the Olympics?’” Frerichs said. “Maybe. But I’m just focusing on one step at a time. When you get too carried away with the end step, you forget about the small steps.”
Frerichs still should feel good about her chances. Her time of 9:29.31 from earlier this month is 14th fastest in the world this year and also the best mark by an American.
“I think there’s something else left,” Frerichs said, “and that was just the start of my season.”
After not competing during indoors, Frerichs has positioned her training with the hopes of peaking over the next few months. She finished second in the NCAA Championships last year, so winning a national title is the first goal. A secondary one would be to beat the NCAA record of 9:25.34 set by Colorado’s Jenny Barringer in 2009.
“It’s going to be difficult to achieve,” Frerichs said, “but I think if the conditions are right, there’s no reason why I won’t take a shot at it.”
From there, Frerichs will turn her attention towards a lifelong dream of competing in the Olympics … though for a long time, she envisioned doing that in gymnastics. Frerichs grew up admiring Shawn Johnson and also had the opportunity to meet Nadia Comaneci when she was 9.
“When I was 13 or 14, I realized that probably wasn’t the path I was going down,” Frerichs said, “but as soon as my coach told me when I was at UMKC that he thought I had a shot at even just making the (Olympic) trials, it really lit the fire and got me training really hard.”
Frerichs’ rise is even more remarkable considering track wasn’t even her second-favorite sport growing up. Along with gymnastics, she played soccer, and in high school she only attended track meets that didn’t conflict with her matches. It was one reason she never competed in Missouri’s state track and field meet.
“I’m really glad my parents pushed me into doing lots of different sports, so then I wasn’t burnt out,” Frerichs said. “I was excited as a college athlete, and it allowed me once I was able to focus to make big improvements.”
That started during her first four years at UMKC under distance coach James Butler. Frerichs made five NCAA Championship meets in track and cross country, though four of those she attended without any other teammate.
She chose to transfer to New Mexico this year so she could train with more runners that would challenge her. That paid off in November, as Frerichs led New Mexico’s cross country team to its first-ever national championship.
“To be able to have a full team there was a whole new experience for me,” Frerichs said. “It was a good end to that chapter of my collegiate career.”
She has one more college meet left, and after that, she’ll look to solidify her spot in the 2016 Olympics.
“If I were to make it, I’d obviously hope to make the final, but 2016 is about the experience for me, whether it’s just the experience of the trials, the experience of Rio,” Frerichs said. “With where I’m at in my career, 2020 is really going to be my prime, I believe. Anything I can do this year is going to help me be even better in 2020 where I maybe could potentially have a shot at medaling.”
On Friday, Frerichs simply enjoyed the opportunity to compete in front of family close to home. She also appreciated time spent at the team hotel in Kansas City — a place that had been her home the previous four years.
“I like that my roots are from here: Missouri, the Kansas City area,” Frerichs said. “I got a lot of support from the community. It’s really an amazing thing.”