Women’s Steeple Preview: Emma Coburn’s Got a Shot for a (Gold) Medal in a Wide-Open Affair

By LetsRun.com
August 21, 2015


The women’s steeplechase is one of the most-wide open of all the events at Worlds. The world leader, Habiba Ghribi of Tunisia, hadn’t raced since February before hopping in the steeple in Monaco on July 17 and running 9:11.28 (she hasn’t raced since). The Diamond League leader, Virginia Nyambura (wins in Doha, Birmingham and Lausanne) entered the year with a 9:58.08 PR and started off the Diamond League opener as a rabbit before winning the race. With reigning world champ Milcah Chemos out for the year due to injury and 2012 Olympic champ Yuliya Zaripova (who was later stripped of the title) banned for doping, we’re poised for a new champion in an event without a clear favorite.

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Besides from Ghribi and Nyambura, Kenyan Hyvin Kiyeng (a Diamond League winner in Rome) and Ethiopians Hiwot Ayalew (2014 world #1, 2015 DL winner in New York) and Sofia Assefa, the top two returners from two years ago, should also be in the medal hunt.

Will Coburn earn a victory lap in Beijing as well?

Will Coburn earn a victory lap in Beijing as well?

From an American perspective, the spotlight is squarely on Emma Coburn, last year’s world #2 and the two-time defending U.S. champ. Coburn’s 2014 season was the finest ever by an American steeplechaser, highlighted by her 9:11.42 in Glasgow on July 12 (though it didn’t count as the AR since she did not take a post-race drug test). That, plus her relative youth (she’s 24) made her a trendy medal pick for Beijing entering 2015, a staggering proposition on January 1, 2014.

To this point, Coburn has yet to live up to the extremely lofty expectations foisted upon her. Uneven is perhaps the best way to describe Coburn’s season, though she remains a serious medal threat at Worlds. She began extremely well, running a 1500 PR of 4:05.10 at the Pre Classic on May 30 and followed that up with an impressive victory at USAs, running 9:15.59 in hot temps. She seemed poised for some fast times in Europe and began with a solid performance in Lausanne on July 9 (3rd behind Nyambura and Ayalew), though the 9:20.67 time, in slightly windy conditions, was disappointing.

Coburn had a better shot at the perennially fast Monaco meet the following week, but came down with illness before the race and struggled to a 10th-place finish in 9:23.91. She hasn’t raced since.

So which Coburn will we see in Beijing? The one who seemed destined for a medal, possibly gold, in late-2014/early 2015, or the one who struggled on the circuit this summer? Expect something closer to the former. Coburn’s race in Monaco was a disaster, but it’s not easy to race when you’re sick. We’re not going to punish her for going out to compete when she was less than 100%. And apart from that, there’s really not much to dislike. Lausanne wasn’t a terrific result, as Nyambura and Ayalew dropped her in the final laps. But Coburn was still third, and she’s had a month and a half to close that gap.

Based on her history, there’s reason to believe that Coburn could be in much better shape at Worlds. Obviously the goal of every athlete is to be at peak fitness at Worlds, but that’s easier said than done — just ask Genzebe Dibaba. Coburn missed Worlds due to injury in 2013, but at the Olympics in 2012, she PR’d in the final, which is as much as you can ask for from a runner. The year before in Daegu, she ran just a second off her PR to grab the final time qualifier to the final. Though she was only 13th in the final, simply making it to the final was a tremendous accomplishment for the then 20-year-old Coburn.

Coburn is not a lock for a medal and shouldn’t be favored over runners like Nyambura or Ayalew, who have been more consistent this year. But it would also be foolish to discount her based on those two races in Europe. A great race from Coburn in Beijing will definitely produce a medal, possibly gold.

2013 results
1. Milcah Chemos, Kenya 9:11.65
2. Lydia Chepkirui, Kenya 9:12.55
3. Sofia Assefa, Ethiopia 9:12.84
4. Hiwot Ayalew, Ethiopia 9:15.25
5. Etenesh Diro Neda, Ethiopia 9:16.97

Top 2015 performances
(among athletes entered at Worlds)
1. Habiba Ghribi, Tunisia 9:11.28
2. Hyvin Kiyeng, Kenya 9:12.51
3. Virginia Nyambura, Kenya 9:13.85
4. Hiwot Ayalew, Ethiopia 9:14.98
5. Emma Coburn, USA 9:15.59

Who will win the thing?

No one has seized control of the event this year, and aside from Monaco the times haven’t been particularly fast, making for an exciting, unpredictable final. If we had to pick a favorite, we’d go with Ghribi, despite the fact that she’s raced just once since February. She pulled the same stunt in 2012, winning her sole steeple before the Olympics (in Paris) and then finishing second in the Olympics (which could be upgraded to gold now that Zaripova’s victory has been annulled). In 2011, she was also second behind Zaripova at Worlds (she didn’t run Worlds in 2013) so she’s got by far the best championship experience of anyone in the field. If she was able to run 9:11 in her first race of the season a month ago, you’d expect she could get down to 9:0x in Beijing, which could be enough for gold.

The 22-year-old Nyambura’s improvement this year has been incredible, as she either won or PR’d (or both) in her first five steeples of the year. However, she may not be the best athlete on the Kenyan team right now as she’s lost to Hyvin Kiyeng in each of her last two races, in Monaco on July 17 and at the Kenyan Trials on August 1. Kiyeng, like Nyambura, hasn’t finished outside of the top three all year and she has a slightly better shot to win than Nyambura. If at least one of them doesn’t medal, it would be a shock.

We already mentioned Coburn, so that leaves the Ethiopian duo of Ayalew and Assefa. Assefa, the bronze medallist in 2013, has been 7th, 6th and 6th this year in her three races, with an SB of 9:23. A medal would require a tremendous performance. Ayalew is the far more interesting prospect. She’s been 2nd, 3rd, 1st, 2nd and 4th in her five DL races (her win came against the weakest field of the year in New York) but she was the world’s best steeper in 2014, winning three DL events. She was 5th at the 2012 Olympics and 4th at Worlds in 2013; a medal in Beijing is the logical next step.

The Other Americans

As they have on the men’s side, the U.S.’s women’s steeplers have made tremendous progress over the last few years, specifically 2015, as six Americans have already broken 9:32. Prior to last year, the most Americans to ever do it in a single year was three. Four years ago, Coburn’s 9:37.16 led the U.S. on the year; that time would have placed her seventh at USAs in 2015.

Stephanie Garcia was the USA runner-up behind Coburn and she’s been running tremendously all year, with big PRs at 1500 (4:05.39) and 5,000 (15:19.50) and a smaller PR in the steeple at USAs (9:23.48). Garcia was a solid fourth in her last DL race (June 7 in Birmingham) and ran a mile PR of 4:28.84 to win the Sir Walter Miler on August 7. She’s not quite in the medal conversation yet but at no. 14 on the world list this year, she has a good shot to make the final.

Colleen Quigley, the NCAA champion from Florida State (now training with Bowerman Track Club) rounds out Team USA. Though Quigley has made tremendous progress this year (going from 9:38 to 9:24), she’s had a very long season. She ran full indoor and outdoor seasons for Florida State and perhaps showed some of that fatigue in her first European race on July 9 in Lausanne, struggling to an 11th-place finish in 9:42. The good news is that race was her only bad one of 2015. Given her 9:24 PR, making the final isn’t out of the question if Quigley isn’t too tired out from her long season. At the very least, she’ll gain some valuable experience to carry her into the Olympic year of 2016.

LRC Prediction: 1. Ghribi 2. Kiyeng 3. Ayalew

This one could go a lot of ways. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Nyambura or Coburn on the medal stand. Ghribi has the championship credentials so we’ll go with her for the win; Kiyeng is in better form that Nyambura and will get second while Ayalew finally medals in third.

Schedule of races (all times U.S. ET)
Prelims: Sunday, August 23 (9:45 p.m. ET)
Final: Wednesday, August 26 (9:00 a.m. ET)