2014 LRC Year-End Rankings: Women’s 3000 Steeplechase: Emma Coburn is World #1 as Hiwot Ayalew Is #1

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By LetsRun.com
December 29, 2014

2014 is almost at an end and with not much going on in the world of running until the New Year, it’s the perfect time to release our end-of-year rankings. Over the next two weeks, we’ll be ranking the top 10 men and women in the world in every Diamond League event (800, 1500, 3000 steeple, 5000) and the marathon. Don’t worry, U.S. fans: we’ll rank the top five Americans in each event as well.

Since these rankings are obviously subjective, we’ll lay out the criteria we’re using for them:

  • An emphasis on performance in big races. How the athlete fared in major races (World Indoors, Diamond League final, continental championships, Continental Cup and Commonwealth Games) is the most important, followed by Diamond League races and then all other races. For U.S. athletes, their performance at the USATF Outdoor Championships also factors heavily in the rankings.
  • Season-best times matter but they’re less important if the time wasn’t run against good competition.
  • End-of-season performances are weighted more heavily than those at the start of the season (but less so than a normal year as their was no Worlds so various runners had different goals)
  • Runners who specialized in one event will be considered for other events but can be penalized in the rankings for not running enough races.
  • Indoor races will be considered and can help an athlete’s ranking, but they won’t be valued as much as outdoor races, but we certainly recognized the fact that World Indoors was the only global championship this year.

World Rankings

It was a year of change in the women’s steeple as our top two women — Ethiopia’s Hiwot Ayalew and America’s Emma Coburn — have a combined zero medals at global championships. What has happened to the medallists at the last two championships? Check it out:

2013 Worlds
1. Milcah Chemos, Kenya. She looked out of shape at the Diamond League opener in Shanghai, running 9:38 for eighth, and though she showed flashes of her old form with a 9:21 at the Glasgow DL and a silver at the Commonwealth Games, she called it a season on July 30.
2. Lidya Chepkurui, Kenya. Like Chemos, she ran 9:38 in Shanghai (ninth) and never ran faster than 9:24 after sbs of 9:14 and 9:12 in the preceding two years.
3. Sofia Assefa, Ethiopia. Assefa ran well in 2014, winning two DL races and finishing with the world’s second-fastest time.

2012 Olympics
1. Yuliya Zaripova, Russia. Injury kept her out of Worlds last year; was reportedly pregnant this season. Hasn’t raced since July 25, 2013.
2. Habiba Ghribi, Tunisia. Was a poor 10th at the Pre Classic (9:53) in 2014 opener. Didn’t race another DL race until Stockholm on August 21 but was second there and first at the final in Zurich.
3. Assefa

Of those five women, only Assefa and Ghribi were truly relevant in 2014 and Ghribi didn’t run well until late August. Whether Chemos and Chepkurui (or Zaripova) will be back in shape in 2015 is anyone’s guess. In their place, Ayalew and Coburn rose up; those two and Assefa were clearly the top three in the world this year. Ayalew’s rise was not unexpected. She was fourth at Worlds last year and ran 9:09 two years ago. With Chemos and Chepkurui struggling, she was an obvious candidate to fill one of their places.

Coburn’s success in 2014 came as a surprise. She shocked the track world with her season-opening win in Shanghai on May 18, where Assefa allegedly thought Coburn was a pacemaker. Everyone was ready for Coburn at Pre, and she followed her win in Shanghai up with a solid third-place finish (and another pb) there and kept rolling throughout the summer. Coburn, whose pb stood at 9:23.54 entering the season, PR’d in her first four DL races, culminating with her 9:11.42 all-time American best (not an American record as Coburn wasn’t drug tested) in Glasgow on July 12. Though Ayalew beat Coburn more often than not (5-2 vs. Coburn on the year), Coburn proved she could hang with — and beat — the very best in the world. If history is any guide, there will be new contenders for the world title in 2015, but with great coaches in Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs and a great training partner in DL 1500 champion Jenny Simpson, Coburn is in great position to win America’s first global medal in the event next year.

1. Hiwot Ayalew • Ethiopia • 24 years old • 9:10.64 sb (#1) • African Champion • Diamond League Champion

DL results: 3rd Shanghai, 2nd Pre, 1st Paris, 1st Glasgow, 1st Stockholm, 2nd Zurich (DL final)
Championship results: 1st African Championships, 2nd Continental Cup

Ayalew was consistently good from May to September and was unbeatable in the middle of the summer, winning five straight races (including three DL events and the African Championships) from June 8 to August 21. Ghribi took her down at the DL final and Coburn did the same at the Continental Cup, but Ayalew still finished in the top three in all six of her Diamond League races (no one else can match that feat) and ran the world’s first-, fourth- and fifth-fastest times. Coburn and Assefa were great this year, but there’s no doubt that Ayalew was the best.

Coburn was all smiles in Glasgow on July 12 as she broke Simpson's American record.

Coburn was all smiles in Glasgow on July 12 as she broke Jenny Simpson’s American record.

2. Emma Coburn • USA • 24 years old • 9:11.42 sb (#3) • U.S. Champion

DL results: 1st Shanghai, 3rd Pre, 2nd Paris, 2nd Glasgow, 3rd Stockholm, 5th Zurich (DL final)
Championship results: 1st USAs, 1st Continental Cup

It came down to Coburn versus Assefa for the #2 spot and in a tight race, we gave the nod to Coburn by virtue of her 3-2 record against her rival. Assefa ran a faster time (but only by .03 seconds) and beat her at the DL final, but in a race this close, the best way to judge them is head-to-head record since all their matchups were DL events. Assefa took silver at the African Championships but Coburn beat our #1, Ayalew, to win the Continental Cup, a more impressive performance in our minds.

However you look at it, Coburn can’t be lower than #3, and that’s saying something for an American. The women’s steeple is still a very young event (it was added to Worlds in 2005 and made its Olympic debut in 2008) but in the seven global championships it’s been an event for, American women have won a total of zero medals with the best finish being Jenny Barringer‘s (now Simpson) fifth in Berlin in 2009. We’re sure Simpson would be among the world’s best (if not the best) right now if she stuck with it. Instead, her training partner Coburn has risen up in her place and is on track to become the greatest female American steepler in the event’s short history (if she isn’t there already). In 2015, it’s very possible that the U.S. could take home medals in both the men’s and women’s steeples at Worlds, a statement that would have been laughable as recently as three years ago.

3. Sofia Assefa • Ethiopia • 27 years old • 9:11.39 sb (#2) • African Silver

DL results: 2nd Shanghai, 1st Pre, 1st New York, 3rd Paris, 4th Stockholm, 3rd Zurich (DL final)
Championship results: 2nd African Championships

With two DL victories and a runner-up finish at the African Championships, Assefa had a good season by most people’s standards. But in reality, 2014 was a missed opportunity for her. Assefa took bronze at Worlds last year and the two medalists in front of her — Milcah Chemos and Lidya Chepkurui — had off years, paving the way for Assefa to take over as world #1 (Assefa also had the third-fastest time in the world in 2013, behind only Chemos and Chepkurui). Instead, Ayalew and Coburn leapfrogged Assefa (Coburn at the very least is now at Assefa’s level). This is becoming a pattern with Assefa as she took bronze at the 2012 Olympics and saw the top two women from that race (Yuliya Zaripova and Habiba Ghribi) fall out of the picture in 2013 only for Chemos and Chepkurui to take their places. Assefa certainly has a strong chance at a medal in 2015, but this time she hopes to be the one leaping up the world rankings.

4. Habiba Ghribi • Tunisia • 30 years old • 9:15.23 sb (#4) • 5th at African Championships

DL results: 10th Pre, 2nd Stockholm, 1st Zurich (DL final)
Championship results: 5th African Championships

Had Ghribi, the Olympic silver medalist, run a full season of steeples, she could have contended with Coburn and Assefa for the #2 spot in these rankings. But Ghribi didn’t get in shape until late August, and her two impressive end-of-season results (second at the penultimate DL meet in Stockholm, followed by a win at the DL final in Zurich) weren’t enough to outweigh her absence earlier in the year. You could make the argument that Ghribi was among the world’s top two steeplers by the end of the season, but unfortunately for her, the track calendar stops in early September.

Perhaps Ghribi was battling a nagging injury — she raced once from June 1 to August 11. Whatever the reason, she just wasn’t good enough for long enough in 2014 to finish higher than fourth on this list.

Proof that hurdle form is way overrated

Jebet (far right) made it look easy as she won World Juniors by four seconds on July 26.

5. Ruth Jebet • Bahrain • 18 years old • 9:20.55 (#6) • World Junior Champion

DL results: 4th Zurich (DL final)
Championship results: 1st World Juniors, 3rd Continental Cup, 1st Asian Games

The Kenyan-born Jebet could be a future star in the event. She won World Juniors in July and fared well against top senior competition by taking fourth at the DL final (ahead of Coburn) and third at the Continental Cup. At 18, she is already the Asian record holder in the steeple; how much lower can she take that record over the next 10 years?

6. Salima El Ouali Alami • Morocco • 31 years old (on 12/29) • 9:21.24 sb (#7) • African Bronze

DL results: 5th Shanghai, 5th Paris, 7th Stockholm, 8th Zurich (DL final)
Championship results: 3rd African Championships, 6th Continental Cup

The women’s steeple is one of the shallower events in running owing to the event’s age, so El Ouali Alami, with a bronze at the African Champs and only a best DL finish of fifth is our choice for #6 in LRC’s rankings. She had the seventh-best sb of anyone in the world and went a combined 7-4 against her closest competition, Etenesh Diro Neda and Purity Kirui, with victories over both at the African Championships.

7. Etenesh Diro Neda • Ethiopia • 23 years old • 9:19.71 sb (#5) • 4th at African Championships

DL results: 7th Shanghai, 4th Pre, 4th Paris, 11th Stockholm, 7th Zurich (DL final)
Championship results: 4th African Championships

Diro Neda came in at #5 on the world list in terms of sb and was 4-1 against the next woman on this list, Purity Kirui, with key head-to-head wins at the African Championships and DL final. This spot is about right for Diro Neda, who was sixth at the 2012 Olympics and 5th at the 2013 Worlds, but it’s a bit distressing that her sb has gotten slower in each of the past two years (from 9:14 in 2012 to 9:16 in ’13 and 9:19 in ’14).

8. Purity Kirui • Kenya • 23 years old • 9:23.43 sb (#10) • Commonwealth Champion • 6th at African Championships

DL results: 4th Shanghai, 5th Pre, 2nd New York, 9th Paris, 9th Zurich (DL final)
Championship results: 1st Commonwealth Games, 6th African Championships

It may seem strange to have the Commonwealth champion at #8, but the field Kirui defeated in Glasgow on July 30 doesn’t lend her win a lot of credibility — of the other women in our top 10, only #9 Milcah Chemos was present in the race (yes, Chemos is the defending world champion, but she was a shell of herself in 2014). She started out strong with three consecutive DL top-fives at Shanghai, Pre and New York, but faded late in the season.

9. Milcah Chemos • Kenya • 28 years old • 9:21.91 sb (#8) • Commonwealth Silver

DL results: 8th Shanghai, DNF Pre, 8th Paris, 3rd Glasgow
Championship results: 2nd Commonwealth Games

Chemos went from a clear world #1 in 2013 — four DL wins, a world title and the fastest time in the world — to struggling to crack our top 10 in 2014. Chemos wasn’t in good shape for the DL opener in Shanghai on May 18, and though she did manage to pull it together for a third in the Glasgow DL meet on July 12 and a silver in the CG on the same track 18 days later, she called it a season after that race and was absent from the track in August and September. Chemos is one of the very best in the world when fit and motivated (her slowest sb from 2009-2013 was 9:11.65); at 28 (she turns 29 in February), she should still have a few more years at the top.

10. Hyvin Kiyeng • Kenya • 22 years old • 9:22.58 sb (#9) 

DL results: 11th Paris, 5th Stockholm, 6th Zurich (DL final)
Championship results: none

Kiyeng didn’t run amazingly on the Diamond League circuit, though she had solid finishes in the final two races in Stockholm and Zurich. She also picked up a nice win in June in Ostrava in which she ran her sb (9:22.58), which ranked her ninth in the world. Kiyeng was sixth at Worlds in 2013 and it’s not a stretch to think she could return to that level next year.

Honorable mention: Charlotta Fougberg, Stephanie Garcia

U.S. Rankings

2014 was undoubtedly the U.S.’s most successful year ever in the women’s steeple. The event saw massive American pbs across the board — the top six women on the U.S. list this year all PR’ed, by an average of 13.85 seconds. Emma Coburn finished as one of the best in the world, giving the U.S. a legitimate medal threat in the event for the first time ever. In all, four women ran faster than 9:30 this year; the U.S. leader was 9:37 as recently as 2011. American women seem to be realizing that global success at the 5000 is extremely hard to come by (American record holder Molly Huddle has yet to sniff a global medal) but there are opportunities in the steeplechase. Another year of huge pbs in 2015 is unlikely, but putting multiple women in the final at Worlds — something the U.S. has done only once — shouldn’t just be a goal, but an expectation.

1. Emma Coburn (see above)

Garcia broke out with a 13-second pb in New York on June 14, eventually getting down to 9:24.28 in Glasgow.

Garcia broke out with a 13-second pb in New York on June 14, eventually getting down to 9:24.28 in Glasgow.

2. Stephanie Garcia • Furman Elite/New Balance • 26 years old • 9:24.28 sb (#2 in U.S.) • 3rd at USAs

DL results: 4th New York, 7th Paris, 5th Glasgow
Championship results: 3rd USAs

Garcia finished five seconds behind Ashley Higginson at USAs, but she accomplished more on the DL circuit (her lowest finish in three races was seventh; Higginson was eighth and ninth in her two races) and ran much faster times — Garcia had the #8, #9, #12 and #13 times in the U.S. this year; Higginson’s best, 9:27.59, was #11. Garcia made the Worlds squad in 2011, but this year was clearly a huge breakthrough for the Virginia grad, who lowered her pb from 9:41 to 9:24 and finished with the #13 time in the world. A Worlds final is within her reach in 2014.

3. Ashley Higginson • NJ*NY Track Club/Saucony • 25 years old • 9:27.59 sb (#4 in U.S.) • 2nd at USAs

DL results: 9th Pre, 8th Stockholm
Championship results: 2nd USAs

After just missing out on the Olympic team in 2012, Higginson has responded with two consecutive runner-up finishes at USAs. While she’s unlikely to unseat Coburn, who has become a global force, Higginson made improvements of her own in 2014, lowering her pb from 9:34 to 9:27 and running that time in the midday heat of Sacramento. Balancing law school (at Rutgers) and a professional track career is difficult, but Higginson is pulling it off. Looking ahead to 2015, the question for Higginson — and Garcia — is how close can they get to 9:20, a mark that just two Americans have ever eclipsed?

4. Aisha Praught • OTC Elite/Nike • 25 years old • 9:34.69 sb (#5 in U.S.) • 4th at USAs

Championship results: 4th USAs

Praught is a level below the top three, but she should be happy with her season. This was by far her best finish at USAs (didn’t make the final in 2012; 11th in 2013) and she lopped 16 seconds off her personal best. There are still improvements to be made, but with three relatively women ranked ahead of her and talented collegians like Leah O’Connor and Rachel Johnson on the rise, that may not be enough for Praught to make it onto the Worlds squad.

5. Nicole Bush • Furman Elite/New Balance • 28 years old • 9:24.59 sb (#2 in U.S.) • 8th at USAs

DL results: 11th Glasgow
Championship results: 8th USAs

Bush, like everyone on this list, ran a significant pb in 2014 (15 seconds). Unfortunately for Bush, that wasn’t enough to defend her U.S. title as she had a bad day in Sacramento and was only eighth in Sacramento. Bush capitalized on a weak year in the event to win the U.S. title last year, but her 9:24 in Heusden on July 19 showed she has the talent to remain among America’s elite. A better race at USAs in 2015 and Bush has a shot to make Worlds team #2.

Honorable mention: Leah O’Connor


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