Pembroke Hill product Heather Burroughs makes name for herself as coach of Olympians

Heather Burroughs
Heather Burroughs

If someone had told former Pembroke Hill star runner Heather Burroughs that she would someday coach a couple of Olympic medalists, she would have said the idea was ludicrous.

“I didn’t think I would be very good at it,” said Burroughs, who won two cross country and seven Missouri Class 2 state track titles during 1990-94.

But two Olympic medals later, Burroughs admitted the coaching profession has worked out. Thanks to Emma Coburn (who won the bronze in the women’s steeplechase in Rio) and Jenny Simpson (who won the bronze in the 1,500-meter race), Burroughs has helped guide two athletes to the Olympic podium.

Burroughs made her own attempt at the Olympics after a standout career at the University of Colorado. Although she was a three-time cross country All-American there, she never made the jump to being an internationally elite runner.

As Burroughs was running in NCAA cross country and track meets, she never harbored any coaching aspirations. But when her own athletic career fizzled, she joined her alma mater’s staff, alongside her college coach, Mark Wetmore.

“(Running) is primarily an individual sport, a selfish sport,” Burroughs said. “It’s not like a soccer team, where everyone wins or everyone loses. I didn’t think I would be great at coaching, because how could I possibly figure out what works individually for 20 different people? I would never have believed I would be here today.”

Something clicked among Burroughs, Coburn and Simpson, though. Burroughs has been Simpson’s coach for all but three of the last 11 years, and has coached Coburn since 2008.

Part of Burroughs’ coaching philosophy comes from her experience as a runner. From her days at Pembroke Hill to her college career, she learned that running was not a sport guided by grand actions, but by a day-to-day grind of minutia. She tries to preach that mind-set to the athletes she coaches, including Coburn and Simpson.

“The glory and happiness of the final is a fraction of a percentage of your work,” Burroughs said. “It’s really the five or 10 years of day-to-day details that make someone good.”

She’s been by Coburn and Simpson’s sides as both runners have learned the value of that daily drudgery. And although Burroughs wasn’t in Brazil for the runners’ triumphs — Wetmore traveled with them instead — she was in as much communication with them as international phone plans will allow.

Both runners expected to medal, Burroughs said, but it was still an overwhelming moment when the dreams turned into reality.

Simpson went through three rounds of her event before reaching the podium, and ran the 1,500-meter final in 4:10.53. It was the first time an American woman has medaled in that race.

Coburn, who previously broke Simpson’s American steeplechase record, also brought home the first-ever medal for U.S. women in her event. She finished in 9:07.63 in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, which includes 35 barriers and water jumps.

“I was on the phone with them when they were in the warm-up area, and as they were coming off the track,” Burroughs said. “Both had very specific race plans, and we were pretty confident in how the race would unfold. … When it was all over, we were all alternating between total joy and tears.”

It may have been a different ending than what Burroughs expected, when she was breaking school records at Pembroke Hill. But an Olympic medal’s luster, Burroughs said, is just as bright, even as a coach.

“When I finished my own career, I never could have projected I would be training athletes for this level of success,” Burroughs said. “It’s so much joy to see Jenny and Emma do what they’ve done. Back when I was running, I would have been surprised at where my journey has taken me. But it’s just as sweet to watch them succeed.”

Ashley Scoby: 816-234-4875, @AshleyScoby