Vahe Gregorian

Preparing for Olympic run, Courtney Frerichs lends new identity to Nixa, and UMKC

Courtney Frerichs won the women’s 3000-meter steeplechase at the June NCAA outdoor track and field championships in Eugene, Ore.
Courtney Frerichs won the women’s 3000-meter steeplechase at the June NCAA outdoor track and field championships in Eugene, Ore. AP

In fiction, you might know Nixa, Mo., as the birth place of David Webb, better known as Jason Bourne in the movies inspired by the Robert Ludlum novels.

At least that’s what actual native Courtney Frerichs tends to bring up as the claim to fame of the town of about 19,000 that promotes itself as the only place on Earth thus-named.

She fondly remembers a local pizza place posting, “Jason Bourne is always welcome here.”

But being attached to a concocted character has its limitations.

After all, nothing officially proclaims the would-be heritage of the fantasy character that local legend has it became affiliated with Nixa simply because a member of the original movie production crew hailed from there.

Meanwhile, in real life …

Marquees all over town, and surely more-permanent acknowledgment to come, already commemorate Frerichs.

That’s because in the Rio Olympics on Saturday at the Olympic Stadium, she will further distinguish her hometown when she competes in the first round of the 3000-meter steeplechase.

In the process of this improbable ascension, she’ll also honor UMKC as its first graduate to compete in the Olympics — in a competition further Missouri-fied by the participation of her friend Colleen Quigley, a St. Louisan.

When Frerichs finished second and Quigley third behind Emma Coburn at the U.S. Olympic trials, each was “just in shock,” as Frerichs put it.

When the trials roommates and current training partners with the Bowerman Track Club woke up the next morning in Oregon, they looked at each other with wonder.

“‘Oh my gosh,’” Frerichs remembered saying. “‘Did that actually happen last night?!’”

It was, in fact, “kind of a surreal moment,” former UMKC coach James Butler said, allowing as how he may have choked up some when he made eye contact with Frerichs afterward.

Especially considering Butler was pretty sure Frerichs didn’t even know steeplechase was an event when she arrived at UMKC.

And maybe all the more so because she was in seventh place through the first half of the race before her trademark closing kick.

“For the first 2600 meters, it didn’t look like it was going to happen,” said Butler, who stood with Frerich’s fiancé, former UMKC runner Griffin Humphreys, “going crazy” as it did.

While Frerichs spent last year in grad school at New Mexico, where she followed Butler, she treasured her time in Kansas City and as a Kangaroo.

And that’s what propelled her to this moment after a high school career in which she never so much as qualified for the state track meet.

“I was definitely a pretty risky person to bring in,” she said, laughing.

Her status was made even more wobbly before her freshman year when the coach who recruited her to UMKC, Clif Mitchell, departed for Tulsa.

That made for some mystery for Butler as he took the job.

“When he saw me on paper and didn’t know me as a person yet, he kind of questioned what (Mitchell’s) thought process was,” Frerichs said.

But that didn’t keep Butler from doing what a coach should do: find a way to tap what’s within — a moral of this story.

“It was almost destiny,” said Butler, who never coached an Olympian before. “Because I went there not knowing anything about her, and she came to UMKC not knowing anything about me.”

Getting to know her, in fact, was essential to what was to come.

Both in learning her athletic background — in gymnastics and soccer — and her makeup.

One of the favorite stories Butler likes to tell about Frerichs, one that told him something about how much this mattered to her, came when she overslept and arrived a few minutes late for a 6 a.m. cross-country practice her freshman year.

Ready to scold her, he stopped short when he saw her crying — “a complete mess,” as he put it — and taking it much harder than he was going to put on her.

Witnessing her dedication and drive, which included being on a pre-med track and later earning a degree in chemistry with nearly a perfect GPA, he stayed patient with her development.

Learning of her background in gymnastics and observing her build and lower-leg strength, he thought she might have a future in steeplechase — the somewhat arcane event that features the hazards of 28 30-inch-high fixed barriers and seven 12-foot water jumps.

“Cross-country on the track,” Frerichs likes to call it. Or “long-distance hurdling.”

By any name, she had an instant advantage despite her lack of experience:

Objects in her front-view lens were smaller than they might appear to others.

What Frerichs called “air awareness and being able to sense the barriers,” her flexibility and comfort with vaulting, all meant that the “fear of running at those objects” was no factor for her.

So it quickly took.

“After a few weeks of practice,” Butler said, “I knew it was the right decision.”

This is where being in a program the size of UMKC particularly was pivotal in all this:

Butler invested time in the development of the budding All-America in ways he might not have been able to afford in a larger program such as the one he now runs at New Mexico.

“She was severely undertrained, didn’t know anything about the sport and lacked some confidence,” he said. “If she had gone to one of those big-time programs, I don’t think she would have made it.

“I think it would have been a situation where it would have been too much too soon.”

Instead, it was just enough and right on time.

As a freshman, she put together the top four times in school history.

As a sophomore, she won the conference meet in what was then UMKC’s conference, the Summit League, and finished sixth in the NCAA.

In June for New Mexico, she won the NCAA title in a time of 9 minutes, 24.41 seconds to break a 7-year-old NCAA record by more than a second.

But the true breakthrough, she’ll tell you, was at the junior world championships in Spain in 2012.

She didn’t reach the finals, but she was close enough that Butler infused new imagination and confidence in her during what he called “a light-switch moment.”

“He sat me down after and said I had earned the right for an Olympic dream,” she recalled. “That’s how I spent the next four years, and it was almost four years to the day that” she qualified.

It’s hard to know what can be expected in Rio, of course.

The competition is stacked with Olympic veterans including Coburn, the American record-holder (9:10.76) who finished eighth in the London Olympics after the place of apparent winner Yuliya Zarapova of Russia was vacated for doping.

Coburn won the 2016 U.S. trials in 9:17.48 as Frerichs arrived in 9:20.92.

But even as Frerichs continues to think about medicine in her future, she figures her peak track years loom first.

Her training has been enhanced the last few months by joining the Portland-based Bowerman Track Club and signing a contract with Nike, so it can only be expected to become more refined in the months and perhaps years to come.

Butler also reckons her brightest track days will be in the next few years.

With a caveat.

“I think being on this stage will light a whole another fire underneath her,” he said.

Yet even as he pointed to next year and the next Olympic cycle, he chuckled and said, “I’ve learned not to put limits on her.”

Because of a born identity that Nixa — and UMKC — can consider a true claim to fame.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian