Vahe Gregorian

Four years ahead of schedule, UMKC’s Courtney Frerichs finishes 11th in Olympic steeplechase

Courtney Frerichs preparing for run at Olympics in steeplechase

Courtney Frerichs, from Nixa, Mo., has the top time in the United States in the steeplechase and is likely to represent the United States in the 2016 Rio Olympics. The former UMKC runner is competing for New Mexico this season.
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Courtney Frerichs, from Nixa, Mo., has the top time in the United States in the steeplechase and is likely to represent the United States in the 2016 Rio Olympics. The former UMKC runner is competing for New Mexico this season.

When Courtney Frerichs arrived at UMKC from Nixa, Mo., five years ago, she was under-the-radar and undertrained and about as unfamiliar with track and field’s steeplechase event as could be.

“I heard of it once,” she said, laughing, as she recalled her intent to stay with the triple jump and 5K.

But fate or fortune and then-UMKC coach James Butler came to have something else in mind.

Raw as she might have been in some ways athletically, Frerichs’ zeal to excel and her background in gymnastics and soccer had promoted not only leg strength and flexibility but also cultivated sheer nerve and a sense of “air awareness.”

As Butler learned all this, he saw not a girl who had never qualified for a state high school track meet but a budding steeplechaser.

And here we might all pause in appreciation of those people in life who see in us something we don’t know we have, those who believe in you before you believe in yourself and change your range and direction and self-perception.

Because without that, her limitless work ethic notwithstanding, most likely Frerichs would not have been speaking where she was on Monday: at the Rio Olympics, where she finished 11th in the 3000-meter steeplechase as the first UMKC grad ever to compete in an Olympics.

Imagine being 11th-best in the world at something substantial only a relatively brief time after learning it existed.

Her time of 9:22.87 was .14 from a top 10 finish in the grueling event that calls for traversing 28 30-inch-high fixed barriers and seven 12-foot water jumps.

In this case, the event also was marked by a certain Missouri flavor.

Beyond Frerichs, training partner Colleen Quigley of St. Louis finished eighth.

And one of bronze medalist Emma Coburn’s coaches is Heather Burroughs, a renowned runner at the Pembroke Hill School and an All-America at the University of Colorado where she now coaches.

Even in the thrill of the moment for Coburn, Burroughs was conscious of the bright futures of Frerichs and Quigley.

While she has no direct connection to them, by email she wrote of their promise and added, “They are more proof that great things come from Missouri!”

In the case of Frerichs, this was a mere four years since Butler told her she was allowed to dream about the Olympics after she finished 16th overall in the junior world championships in Spain.

And it was a good four years from what Frerichs took that to mean before getting ahead of herself.

She was aiming for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, where she now hopes to make a leap similar to what Coburn did on Monday.

Coburn catapulted from ninth in the 2012 London Games to bronze by breaking her own American record with a time of 9:07.63.

It was the first U.S. medal — first finish better than ninth place, for that matter — in the women’s event launched at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

And it further inspired Frerichs and Quigley, who finished in 9:21.10.

Quigley had been in what she called “my own pit of pain” when she looked up and saw an American flag next to the 3 on the scoreboard — a sight she said made her feel almost as happy as if it had been her.

Frerichs, too, was elated for Coburn, who she called a “wonderful role model.”

Now she can see something else about her to aspire toward: the trajectory toward medaling in her second Olympics after the learning experience of this one.

While Frerichs had what she called a “sense of peace” about the race, it also came after the end of a long NCAA season in which she became accustomed to front-running.

So much so, in fact, that she set the NCAA record (9:24.41) in the event in June for New Mexico, where she followed Butler and attended grad school last year.

She could feel the weight of the year in her legs on Monday as she was dealing with another new sensation: being jostled around in the middle or back of the 18-woman pack.

She reconciled that fairly easily afterward, saying she knew she’d given all she had as they watched back home in Nixa, sure to be proud however she did.

And as she ran before friends and family that included parents Scott and Kathy and sister Lindsey and fiancé Griffin Humphreys (a former UMKC runner) and his family.

Even if she relished all of this, though, she’s about to reinvigorate the whole operation.

After she stops back home for a bit and comes through Kansas City to get her cat, ‘Roo — and perhaps takes one last run on the Trolley Trail, she’ll move to Oregon to train full-time with the Bowerman Track Club.

Meanwhile, as she pursues the path blazed by Coburn, she may already have more in common with her than she realizes.

Burroughs reminded that Coburn had not been “what one would consider a ‘blue chip recruit,’ ” and her introduction to steeplechase had been haphazard.

On the way to the Great Southwest Meet in New Mexico as a high school junior, Coburn’s father wondered why drive all that way from Colorado just to compete in one event, the 800.

So she chose ... steeplechase and ran it with no practice, and by Burroughs’ recollection she might have won that day.

So she tried it again a few weeks later at high school nationals, which happened to be the first time Colorado coaches saw her race.

She had run it a total of three times when she arrived at CU in 2008, but Burroughs said they knew it would be her best event when she arrived.

Even at a distance, Burroughs sees the parallels with Frerichs and Quigley.

“They share similarities to Emma — especially Courtney — in being relatively unheralded high school runners,” she said. “Both Colleen and Courtney are only 23 years old. They’re rookies on the professional level yet they’re already among the best in the world.

“Their times today are nearly identical to Emma’s in the 2012 Olympics (9:23.54). They, too, have realistic ambitions of winning global medals over the next few Olympiads.”

Frerichs still is intent on putting to use the education she sought at UMKC, where she was on a pre-med track and earned a degree in chemistry with nearly a perfect GPA.

But that also can wait thanks to Butler’s vision at UMKC and Frerichs’ willingness to embrace something different than what she’d always known like the triple jump and 5K.

“I think,” she said, smiling, “it was the right mix of two events.”

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian