2016 LRC Year-End Rankings, Women’s Steeplechase: Ruth Jebet Leads the Way; Olympic Medallist Emma Coburn Tops U.S. List for Third Straight Year

By LetsRun.com
December 29, 2016

With few professional events on the running calendar until 2017, LetsRun.com is once again rolling out its year-end rankings of the mid-d and distance events (2014 rankings here; 2015 rankings here). From now until the end of the year, we’ll be ranking the top 10 men and women in the world (plus the top five Americans) in the 800, 1500/mile, 3000 steeplechase, 3,000/5,000 and marathon. We hope you enjoy reading these rankings as much as we enjoyed putting them together.

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 the Olympics is obviously a major consideration but winning Olympic gold doesn’t guarantee that an athlete will earn a #1 ranking. For U.S. athletes, their performance at the U.S. Olympic Trials also factors heavily in the rankings.
  • Season-best times matter but they’re less important if the time wasn’t run against good competition.
  • 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, with an emphasis on World Indoors.

LRC 2015 women’s steeplechase rankings * LRC All 2015 Year-End Rankings * LRC 2016 Olympic Steeple Recap Emma Coburn Wins America’s 1st-Ever Women’s Steeplechase Medal in Style as Bahrain’s Ruth Jebet Claims Gold In Near World Record

LRC All 2016 Year-End Rankings

World Rankings

2016 was a historic year for the women’s steeplechase. Prior to this year, only once in the event’s history had anyone broken 9:00 — Russia’s Gulnara Galkina in 2008. But by season’s end, Ruth Jebet of Bahrain — who turned 20 years old last month — had run faster than 9:00 on three separate occasions, including a monumental 8:52.78 world record in Paris in August (slicing over six seconds off Galkina’s previous mark). Kenya’s Hyvin Kiyeng almost joined her in the sub-9:00 club, running 9:00.01 at the Pre Classic in May, while in the U.S., Emma Coburn set the American record twice, including a 9:07.63 bronze-medal-winning performance in Rio.

Because it’s such a young event (the women’s steeple was only added to the Olympics in 2008), there has been a lot of progress in the women’s steeple in recent years, particularly at the U.S. level, where it’s significantly harder to make the Olympic team in 2016 than it was in either 2008 or 2012. But until Jebet’s breakthrough, no one had proved capable of resetting the bar at the highest level. Jebet’s performance made clear, however, that there was significant room for improvement, and as more talent flows into the event — particularly in Kenya, which has dominated the men’s steeple for decades —  expect that world record to get even faster, and for more and more women to break 9:00.

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That sort of progress takes time, however, and for now, Jebet is clearly the world’s dominant force in the steeple. How long can she stay on top?

1. Ruth Jebet • Bahrain • 20 years old • 8:52.78 sb (#1, world record) • Olympic champion • Diamond League champion

DL results: 2nd Shanghai, 1st Pre Classic, 1st Stockholm, 1st Paris, 1st Zurich (DL final)

Inarguably, this was the greatest season ever by a women’s steepler. Jebet first showed her potential in 2014 by winning the World Junior title at Hayward Field and, a month later, running 9:20 as a 17-year-old in Zurich. But Jebet did not PR in 2015, making her massive breakthrough in 2016 (she lowered her PR by 28 seconds!) quite unexpected. She began by PR’ing in Shanghai on May 14 with a 9:15, a run that suggested she was capable of a lot more considering she looked capable of running under 9:10 but fell (not even on a barrier) on the final lap.

Jebet delivered on that promise two weeks later in Eugene, where she pipped world champion Hyvin Kiyeng at the line to become the second woman ever to break 9:00. She would not lose again, coasting to victories in Stockholm, Rio, Paris and Zurich. While all of those runs were impressive (only Zurich was closer than seven seconds), the wins in Rio and Paris stood out: the former for her dominant gold-medal run (Bahrain’s first-ever Olympic gold in any sport) and the latter for her ridiculous world record, destroying Gulnara Galkina’s 8:58.81. In all, she broke 9:00 three times and now owns the #1, # and #4 times in history. Expect her to add to that in 2017.

The only negative for Jebet was a financial one – she should have never destroyed the world record by so much. Had she barely beaten it, she could re-break time and again in the years to come, picking up a big pay day on each occasion. Of course, since her manager has said she’ll be paid $500,000 by Qatar for her gold, money may not be something she’s worried about.

LRC Paris DL Ruth Jebet Runs 8:52.78 to Shatter Steeplechase World Record
LRC Ruth Jebet archives

2. Hyvin Kiyeng • Kenya • 24 years old • 9:00.01 sb (#2) • Olympic silver medalist

DL results: 1st Shanghai, 2nd Pre Classic, 1st Oslo, 2nd Paris, 2nd Zurich (DL final)

In any other year, Kiyeng would have been the runaway choice for #1. Take out Jebet from the results, and Kiyeng would have gone undefeated on the year, with an Olympic gold medal, five Diamond League victories and the world’s four fastest times — including the #2 time ever. Instead, as she did four times on the track in 2016, she will have to settle for second behind Jebet. As good as Jebet was in 2016, however (and at times, she looked unbeatable), Kiyeng beat her at Shanghai and came within .04 of doing it again at Pre. If Kiyeng, the 2015 world champ, takes another step forward in 2017 and Jebet does not, the World Championships in London will be interesting.

LRC Hyvin Kiyeng archives

3. Emma Coburn • USA • 26 years old • 9:07.63 sb (#3, American record) • Olympic bronze medallist • U.S. Olympic Trials champion

DL results: 3rd Pre Classic, 3rd Paris, 3rd Zurich (DL final)

There was a very clear pecking order at the top of the women’s steeple in 2016: Jebet-Kiyeng-Coburn. Four times those women took the start line together and four times they went 1-2-3 in that order. What Coburn did in 2016 shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anyone who had been following her career over the previous few years, but it’s worth putting into context. Very few American distance runners consistently run some of the fastest times in the world, place highly in Diamond League meets and win medals at major championships. Coburn did all three this year, setting the American record in her very fist steeple (despite missing time over the winter due to an Achilles injury), before commandingly winning her third straight U.S. title and lowering the American record again en route to a bronze medal in Rio. No American female steepler has ever had a better year.

Despite all that, after the season, Coburn split with longtime coaches Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs after the season and will now be coached by fiancé Joe Bosshard. Bosshard ran at the University of Colorado under Wetmore but Coburn will be the first athlete he has ever coached. It will be fascinating to see how she responds.

LRC Q&A: Emma Coburn Discusses Her Big 2016 Season, Leaving Mark Wetmore & Heather Burroughs, & the Future of the Women’s Steeple
LRC Olympic Trials Emma Coburn Wins A Dramatic Steeplechase Final as Missourians Courtney Frerichs and Colleen Quigley Rally Late To Nab The Final Two Olympic Spots
LRC Emma Coburn archives

4. Beatrice Chepkoech • Kenya • 25 years old • 9:10.86 sb (#3) • 4th at Olympics

DL results: 4th Pre Classic, 2nd Stockholm, 4th Paris, 4th Zurich (DL final)

That clear pecking order we referenced in the Coburn section above actually extended to the #4 spot as Chekpoech finished fourth behind the three Olympic medallists in four separate races this year. But if the only people you’re losing to are Olympic medallists, you probably had a pretty good year yourself, and that was the case for Chepkoech, especially considering she had never run a 3,000-meter steeplechase before 2016 (she ran one 2k steeple last year). Running 9:10.86 (which before the year would have made her the 12th-fastest steepler of all time) in your first year in the event is mighty impressive, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Chepkoech run even faster in 2017. If Chepkoech improves, Coburn may be on the outside looking in at medals.

5. Sofia Assefa • Ethiopia • 29 years old • 9:13.09 sb (#5) • 5th at Olympics

DL results: 3rd Shanghai, 5th Pre Classic, 2nd Oslo, 4th Stockholm, 5th Paris, 6th Zurich (DL final)

Assefa has been the most consistent steepler of the 2010s. She has finished in the top five at the past five global championships, and has been third, fourth and fifth on this list the past three years. Though her 9:13 season best was her slowest since 2011, it still put her fifth on the 2016 world list. Younger runners like Jebet and Kiyeng may have surpassed her, but Assefa remains a strong competitor and a threat to finish highly in any race she enters.

6. Gesa Felicitas Krause • Germany • 24 years old • 9:18.41 sb (#8) • 6th at Olympics • European champion

DL results: 7th Pre Classic

Krause only ran one Diamond League event in 2016, but the 2015 World Champs bronze medallist continued to excel in major championships, winning her first European title in Amsterdam — by a comfortable 10 seconds — and taking sixth in Rio. Krause’s three fastest races all came at either Europeans or the Olympics, with her fastest, 9:18.41, fittingly coming in the Olympic final. Though Krause left Rio without a medal, that run was just enough to give her the German record previously held by Antje Moldner-Schmidt (9:18.54) — a mark Krause had come within two seconds of — but never broken — on four separate occasions in the past two years. Still only 24, she’s got a bright future.

7. Etenesh Diro Neda • Ethiopia • 25 years old • 9:16.87 sb (#7) • 15th at Olympics

DL results: 1st Rabat, 3rd Oslo, 10th Paris, 5th Zurich (DL final)

Diro Neda had a subpar Olympics, perhaps because she was stepped on during her prelim, which caused her to lose her shoe. In the finals two days later, she finished 15th; when you consider she entered Rio with the fourth-best time on the season, either her foot wasn’t right or she dramatically underperformed. Still, Diro Neda won in Rabat (though not a Diamond Race points event, there was still a decent field) and was a respectable fifth in the DL final. She also had a winning record against Australians Madeline Hills and Genevieve LaCaze, which meant we put her above them in these rankings.

8. Madeline Hills • Australia • 29 years old • 9:20.38 sb (#15) • 7th at Olympics

DL results: 4th Oslo, 5th Stockholm, 12th Paris

Hills’ big breakthrough came last year, when she went from 9:34 to 9:21, but she was unlucky at Worlds, where she was the first woman out of the final, just .56 away from grabbing the last time qualifier. Hills (formerly Heiner) would not be denied in 2016, however. She began by winning the Australian title in April, then ran her second-fastest time ever in the Olympic semis to advance to her first global final, where she ran a personal best to take seventh. As if that weren’t enough, Hills came back the next day and made the 5,000 final in Rio — where she promptly ran another PR (15:04) — to finish 10th. She and fellow Aussie Genevieve LaCaze went back and forth this year, and though LaCaze finished with the faster SB — an Australian record of 9:14.28 in Paris — Hills was 4-2 against her rival this year, including wins in the two biggest races — the Australian champs and the Olympics.

9. Genevieve LaCaze • Australia • 27 years old • 9:14.28 sb (#6) • 9th at Olympics

DL results: 4th Rabat, 6th Oslo, 3rd Stockholm, 6th Paris, 11th Zurich (DL final)

If you’re on LRC’s world top 10 list, you probably had a good year. Good year doesn’t do justice to what LaCaze accomplished in 2016, however. LaCaze had a successful career at the University of Florida (she was NCAA runner-up in the steeple as a senior in 2012) but for someone who made her third global championships in 2016 (previously she competed at the 2012 Olympics and 2015 Worlds), her PRs weren’t incredible, due in large part to the fact that she had trouble logging long stretches of consistent, uninterrupted training. However, LaCaze experienced no setbacks in 2016 and the result was the kind of year an athlete only dreams about: 16 personal bests in one year!

In all, LaCaze raced 27 times on the track in 2016, so she PR’d in just under 60% of her races. Phenomenal. Here’s the complete list:

1. January 30: 4:10.20 1500 Glendale (AUS)
2. February 13: 15:41.74 5000 Hobart (AUS)
3. May 1: 15:41.33 5000 Palo Alto
4. May 18: 2:04.77 800 Nijmegen (NED)
5. May 22: 9:32.67 3k steeple Rabat
6. June 5: 15:27.13 5000 Birmingham
7. June 9: 9:30.52 3k steeple Oslo
8. June 16: 9:23.19 3k steeple Stockholm
9. June 19: 15:29.92 5000 Lapinlahti (FIN)
10. June 25: 2:04.05 800 Kuortane (FIN)
11. August 15: 9:21.21 3k steeple Rio de Janeiro
12. August 16: 15:20.45 5000 Rio de Janeiro
13. August 19: 15:10.35 5000 Rio de Janeiro
14. August 27: 9:14.28 3k steeple Paris
15. September 6: 8:52.28 3000 Zagreb
16. September 9: 15:06.67 5000 Brussels

LaCaze, who exited in the first round at the 2012 Olympics and 2015 Worlds, made the Olympic final in two separate events this year, running three PRs in Rio in the process (she was ninth in the steeple and 12th in the 5k). Though it is almost impossible for LaCaze to PR as many times in 2017 as she did this year, the fact that she was able to make consistent progress throughout the season sets her up well for another strong campaign.

LRC Genevieve LaCaze archives

10. Habiba Ghribi • Tunisia • 32 years old • 9:18.71 sb (#9) • 12th at Olympics

DL results: 6th Stockholm, 1st London

The 2011 World and 2012 Olypmpic champ (plus 2015 silver medallist) barely raced this year — Ghribi only ran Stockholm, London and the Olympics. But she did win one of her Diamond League appearances, in a time that put her ninth on the 2016 world list, and ran respectably in her two other races in Stockholm (sixth) and Rio (12th). Ghribi barely racing is not new — she’s averaged just 2.9 steeples per year since 2010 (not counting prelims) — but her underperforming at the Olympics this year is: since 2009, she had finished 5th, 1st, 1st and 2nd before her 12th in Rio in 2016. At 32, has Ghribi reached the end of her prime? Or can she climb back on top in 2017?

U.S. Rankings

The women’s steeple has been one of the biggest growth areas for American runners in recent years, and that trend continued in 2016. Check out the U.S. all-time list on January 1, 2016, and what it looks like now:

U.S. women’s steeple all-time list as of 1/1/16
1. Emma Coburn, 9:11.42 (2014)
2. Jenny Simpson, 9:12.50 (2009)
3. Anna Willard, 9:22.76 (2008)
4. Stephanie Garcia, 9:23.48 (2015)
5. Nicole Bush, 9:24.59 (2014)
6. Lisa Aguilera, 9:24.84 (2010)

Current U.S. women’s steeple all-time list
1. Emma Coburn, 9:07.63 (2016)
2. Jenny Simpson, 9:12.50 (2009)
3. Leah O’Connor, 9:18.85 (2016)
4. Stephanie Garcia, 9:19.48 (2016)
5. Colleen Quigley, 9:20.00 (2016)
6. Courtney Frerichs, 9:20.92 (2016)

As is the case internationally, the fact that the event has only been around at the Olympics since 2008 means there has been a lot of room for improvement in recent years. The U.S., with the best youth development system in the world and several quality steeple coaches spread across the collegiate and professional ranks, was particularly well-suited to take advantage. Of course, the U.S. is among the tops in the world in most mid-d/distance events these days, but putting three athletes in the Olympic final — which the U.S. also did at Worlds last year — is no small feat. With a stud in Coburn leading the way and talented recent college grads in Leah O’ConnorColleen Quigley and Courtney Frerichs chasing her, the U.S. is well-positioned for steeple success for years to come.

1. Emma Coburn (see above)

2. Colleen Quigley • Nike Bowerman Track Club • 24 years old • 9:20.00 sb (#4 in US) • 8th at Olympics • 3rd at U.S. Olympic Trials

DL results: 9th Paris, 10th Zurich (DL final)

For the first six months of 2016, it looked very doubtful that Quigley would make it to the Olympics at all. In fact, even with 600 meters to go in the Olympic Trials final, Quigley’s chances were still not good, as she trailed Coburn, Garcia and O’Connor. But Quigley stayed strong over the last lap where Garcia and O’Connor faltered and punched her ticket to Rio despite missing almost the entire spring due to injury — she didn’t race until June 23, and her first steeple was July 4, the first round of the Trials. Yet in an inspiring performance, Quigley still summoned a personal best in Eugene. She then PR’d slightly in the Olympic final to take eighth and PR’d once more in Paris on August 27 to cap a stellar season. Assuming Quigley can stay healthy, she should be even better in 2017.

LRC Colleen Quigley archives

3. Courtney Frerichs • University of New Mexico/Nike Bowerman Track Club • 23 years old • 9:20.92 sb (#5 in US) • 11th at Olympics • U.S. Olympic Trials runner-up • NCAA champion

Frerichs could not have dreamed up a better season if she tried. She opened the season at Stanford on May 1 by becoming the fourth collegian to break 9:30 and one month later broke Jenny Simpson‘s collegiate record to earn her first NCAA title in dominant fashion. Frerichs returned to Eugene in July to make the Olympics with another PR (9:20.92) and finished her year off by taking 11th in the Olympic final. A terrific season by a woman whose career is just getting started.

LRC Courtney Frerichs Wins Women’s NCAA Steeplechase Title In Style, Breaks Jenny Simpson’s Collegiate Record By Running 9:24.41
LRC Courtney Frerichs archives

4. Stephanie Garcia • New Balance/Furman Elite • 28 years old • 9:19.48 sb (#3 in US) • 5th at U.S. Olympic Trials

DL results: 10th Stockholm, 2nd London, 8th Paris

2016 was a bittersweet year for Garcia, who became the fourth American under 9:20 with her run in Paris on August 27. However, the goal of every athlete this year was to make it to the Olympics, and in that endeavor, Garcia fell just short (literally), running out of steam over the final 200 meters and going down on the last barrier at the Olympic Trials. No one can fault Garcia’s courage after she led the first half of that race, particularly after a similar strategy saw her land on the Worlds team in 2015, and she responded to the disappointment well with strong Diamond League runs in London and Paris. The fact is that the competition at USAs was just a little better in 2016 than it was last year.

LRC Stephanie Garcia archives

5. Leah O’Connor • adidas • 24 years old • 9:18.85 sb (#2 in US) • 14th at U.S. Olympic Trials

O’Connor made a major breakthrough at the Pre Classic, slashing almost 13 seconds off her PR to become the third-fastest American of all time at 9:18. Unfortunately, she developed a partial tear of her plantar fascia, and though she battled through it at the Olympic Trials, putting herself in position to make the team with 600 to go, she landed awkwardly on the penultimate water jump. At that point, her body crapped out and she faded all the way to last place. Yet despite running just three steeples in 2016 (Pre, Trials prelim, Trials final), her run at Pre was so impressive that she still earned a top-five ranking. If she can stay healthy next year, she should challenge for a spot at Worlds.

LRC Leah O’Connor archives

What do you think of these rankings? Talk about them on our world famous messageboard / fan forum: MB: http://www.letsrun.com/forum/flat_read.php?thread=79784172016 Women’s Steeple Rankings – It was very easy to pick the top 4 in this one

LRC 2015 women’s steeplechase rankings * LRC All 2015 Year-End Rankings * LRC 2016 Olympic Steeple Recap Emma Coburn Wins America’s 1st-Ever Women’s Steeplechase Medal in Style as Bahrain’s Ruth Jebet Claims Gold In Near World Record

LRC All 2016 Year-End Rankings

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