Courtney Frerichs never competed in the state high school track meet in Missouri, and in her only cross-country state meet she collapsed near the finish.
Still, Frerichs earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Missouri-Kansas City and arrived on campus at the same time as the program’s distance coach, James Butler, who jokingly reminisces about the initial investment.
“Man, we overpaid for that girl,” Butler said.
Frerichs has returned remarkable dividends, developing into one of the nation’s top distance runners. She takes a national collegiate best time in the 3,000-meter steeplechase into the Western Athletic Conference Championships this week in Orem, Utah. That event is Friday, and she’ll also run the 5,000 on Saturday in hopes of helping snag a team title for UMKC.
The steeplechase time of 9 minutes, 32.12 seconds — a personal record by 11 seconds — occurred earlier this month at the Payton Jordan Invitational at Stanford. Only two college runners have ever run better times, and Frerichs’ time is the second-best in the world this year.
Bigger events — the NCAA regional and championships and the USA Track & Field Championships — are on the horizon, and with them more opportunities to bolster a resume that already makes Frerichs the most decorated athlete in UMKC history.
Frerichs, from Nixa, Mo., is a four-time All-American, nine-time conference champion in track and cross-country, and school record-holder in six events. Earlier this week, she became the first WAC athlete selected to the Women’s Bowerman Trophy watchlist, presented to the nation’s top track and field performer.
All of this from somebody who as a high school senior said she “had very little knowledge of what it took to be a runner.”
The lessons would come at UMKC, and her athletic background and approach to competition provided the foundation for Frerichs’ running evolution.
She ran a sub-six minute mile as a fifth-grader, but growing up, competitive running wasn’t Frerichs’ thing. Gymnastics and soccer were.
Frerichs started gymnastics at age 3 and vaulted, balanced and tumbled until she was 18. She was stoked upon learning her fifth-grade teacher also taught former Olympic silver-medalist gymnast and area product Terin Humphrey.
“She got me her autograph,” Frerichs said. “That was a big deal for me.”
A poster of soccer star Mia Hamm hung from her bedroom wall, and Frerichs won all-district honors as a senior at Nixa High.
That was also the year Frerichs transitioned into meet running, joining the cross-country team for the first time and becoming Nixa High’s top performer. She had attended a running camp the previous summer at Missouri State, and the coach of the Division II program told her she could have a future in track.
In the state cross-country meet, Frerichs was in eighth place and could see the finish line. But as she did in the district meet two weeks earlier, she collapsed. Before, she managed to quickly rise and finish strong. In the state meet, Frerichs needed a minute to regain her feet. She wound up 54th.
“It was heartbreaking,” Frerichs said. “My first state experience. I was in an all-state position, it’s every high school athlete’s dream and it slipped out of my hands.”
The disappointment of that day in Jefferson City also provided a moment of clarity.
“I didn’t live up to my expectations,” Frerichs said. “At that point, I knew I was going to run in college. I had unfinished business.”
Frerichs selected UMKC over St. Louis University, and when she didn’t qualify for any event at the state track meet as a senior while splitting time between the track and soccer teams, the Kangaroos weren’t sure what they had in Frerichs.
“It was apparent she had talent, but very little knowledge of running,” Butler said. “We spent a lot of time working during her freshman year.”
On her running ability and her mental approach.
“He sat me down and said, ‘What you’ve done is good, but you can be something great,’” Frerichs said. “I had to learn how to work out, to embrace running. It was about making the right decisions. He told me, ‘You can’t just be an elite runner at practice, you have to be an elite athlete in all your decisions.’”
The suggestion of becoming an elite athlete resonated with Frerichs. As a young gymnast, that’s the goal.
“I was never close to becoming an elite gymnast,” Frerichs said. “But you live for the sport. People say, ‘Oh, you’re a gymnast, are you going to the Olympics?’ That’s what people associate it with.”
When Frerichs was told she had next-level potential as a runner, the fire was stoked.
“I became a different athlete,” she said. “I put so much more into it. I ate correctly, did all my running. It became my life, not something I did on the side.”
Another game-changing moment: recognizing Frerichs’ potential as a steeplechaser, a seven-lap race with four obstacles spaced around the track, one of which is a water jump.
“It was based on her gymnastics and soccer background,” Butler said. “To be good at steeplechase, you have to have flexibility, coordination, strength and a special awareness. It seemed like a natural for her.”
Said Frerichs, “Some people get freaked out running at objects. I spent so many years vaulting, it didn’t faze me.”
Frerichs remained strong in cross-country, the 1,500 and 5,000, but steeplechase became her calling card. A breakthrough came in the 2013 NCAA outdoor meet, when she finished sixth and became an All-American for the first time.
She plans to compete one more year for the Kangaroos in cross-country and outdoor track, finishing a double major in chemistry and psychology while carrying a 3.95 GPA, a path that will lead her into a summer of Olympic trials and perhaps the Olympic Games in Rio De Janerio.
UMKC has never had an NCAA individual champion or an Olympian. If those happen, Frerichs said she’ll feel indebted to Butler, boyfriend Griffin Humphreys, a fellow UMKC distance runner and training partner, and the school that offered a scholarship to an athlete who became a runner.
“It shows you don’t have to have all those bells and whistles to be able to get it done,” Frerichs said. “If you have a support staff behind you and people who believe in you, you can get the job done.”