August 1, 2017
You know an event is loaded when someone sets the world record and wins Olympics gold and one year later, that athlete might not even medal at Worlds. That’s the situation in the women’s steeplechase, and it’s not because Bahrain’s Ruth Jebet has been appreciably worse in 2017 than she was in 2016. It’s just that the rest of the pack — comprised of Kenyans Celliphine Chespol, Hyvin Kiyeng and Beatrice Chepkoech — have all improved markedly, making for a truly special World Championships.
Where does this leave Olympic bronze medalist Emma Coburn of the U.S.? Well, the 26-year-old has run well during her first year under new coach/fiancé Joe Bosshard, barely missing her American record by running 9:07.96 at the Pre Classic. But in a year when there’s more talent in the women’s steeple than ever before, will that be enough for another medal?
Prelims: Wednesday, August 9, 2:05 p.m. ET
Final: Friday, August 11, 4:25 p.m. ET
2016 Olympic results
2017’s fastest performers (among men entered)
The Talent Explosion
Last year, Ruth Jebet redefined what was possible for a female steeplechaser with her monumental 8:52.78 world record in Paris. Now, with more Kenyan talent flowing to the women’s steeple as the event continues to mature, there is depth behind her. Or should we say in front of her? Jebet, who a year ago seemed unbeatable, could only manage 3rd and 4th in her last two Diamond League races before Worlds as Chespol, Kiyeng and Chepkoech have all run faster than Jebet’s 9:01.99 season’s best.
The following stat demonstrates how much stronger the event is now than it was a year ago. At this time last year, Jebet’s 9:01.99 2017 SB would have ranked #5 on the world all-time list. This year, it’s only good for #6 on the list of times run in 2017.
The result of all this is that there is no clear favorite for the 2017 world title. There have been six women’s steeples at Diamond League meets this year, and those races have been won by six different women: Kiyeng, Jebet, Chespol, Norah Jeruto, Chepkoech and 2015 World Champs bronze medalist Gesa Krause of Germany. Jeruto was not selected to the Kenyan team and Krause has never broken 9:15, so the winner will likely be one of the other four, all of whom have broken 9:02 this year.
Exactly who that will be is up for debate. Chespol, only 19 years old, is the world leader thanks to her 8:58.78 (#2 all-time) at Pre on May 26 — the only sub-9:00 on the year. And she could have gone a few seconds faster in that race as she had to stop to put her shoe back on coming off the penultimate water jump. Kiyeng is the reigning champ. Jebet has the fastest PR and is the reigning Olympic champ. But if we were to give a slight edge, it would be to Beatrice Chepkoech. The 26-year-old, who was 4th in Rio last year, has been the most consistent of anyone this year, finishing 1st or 2nd in all five of her steeples. She’s also the only woman to have broken 9:02 more than once and has actually done it three times; she has three of the five fastest times in the world this year.
But what is most appealing about Chepkoech is that she’s been running well lately. The last time all the top women raced each other was in Paris on July 1 — a race we called the greatest women’s steeple field ever assembled — and Chepkoech trounced the competition there, winning by 4+ seconds in 9:01. Three weeks later, Chepkoech went to Monaco and ran a very impressive 8:28 flat 3k, finishing ahead of studs like Laura Muir and Shannon Rowbury (Hellen Obiri was the only woman to beat her). As the hottest runner right now, Chepkoech is the pick in a deep field.
If Chepkoech were to win, it would cap a remarkable rise. Chepkoech didn’t run her first 3,000-meter steeplechase until May 28, 2016 — just over a month before her 25th birthday. Now, just 15 months later, she could be world champion.
While the Kenyan-born athletes are a good threat to sweep the medals, there are a few others worth considering. Coburn, obviously, is the Olympic bronze medalist (we’ll get to her in a minute). Krause looked strong in winning in Rabat on July 16 (even if the time was only 9:18). Sofia Assefa (9:07.06) ran a PR at the Ethiopian Trials and has medalled at both Worlds and the Olympics in the past. Tunisia’s Habiba Ghribi won the Olympics in 2012 (after doper Yuliya Zaripova was stripped of the title) and was second at Worlds in 2015 but was only 9th and 10th in her two DL races this year.
Can Emma Coburn Medal?
That’s been the question with Coburn for the last three years. The answer is yes, Coburn can medal — though she probably won’t unless a massive fall or injury takes out a few women. Fact is, there are four women this year who have run significantly faster than Coburn ever has and one more (Assefa) who has run slightly faster than Coburn ever has. That puts her at a disadvantage, especially if one of them tries to string out the field like Jebet did in Rio last year.
But Coburn has hardly been a slouch herself this year, coming just .33 short of her American record with her 9:07.96 at Pre. In Paris — again, against the greatest women’s steeple field ever — Coburn was fifth in 9:11, but she was only .13 behind Jebet in fourth with Kiyeng (9:06) and Chespol (9:07) not too far out of reach. Last year, Coburn went from 9:10 at Pre to 9:07 in the Olympic final, and if she can make a similar jump in 2017, then she’ll have an outside shot at a medal. She likely needs to be in close to 9:00 shape to medal and she told us she thought she could get down to 9:00 shape by London.
Alternately, if the race goes slow as it did two years ago (9:19 winning time), it could come down to positioning and who has the most left after the final water jump — that’s how the unheralded Krause wound up medalling against a field of women with faster PRs.
The Other Americans
Both Colleen Quigley (8th) and Courtney Frerichs (11th) made the Olympic final last year and there’s no reason to think they won’t make the final again in London this year. Quigley hasn’t run a steeple since USAs, but she clocked 9:25 in that race (five seconds off her PR) before heading to Europe and ripping a 4:03 (eight-second PR) 1500 to win in Heusden. 4:03 is seriously good for a steepler, even in a field like this (Coburn’s PR is 4:05), so we expect Quigley will be in shape to run well under 9:20 in London. The problem is, that may only be good for sixth or seventh.
Frerichs, too, has impressed, running a 9:19 personal best at Pre and 9:22 to take second at USAs. She ran a solid 8:56 PR for 3,000 meters in Lucerne on July 11, but, like Quigley, she has the misfortune of facing the fastest championship field in women’s steeple history in London. While that could well propel her to another PR in the final, it means that she won’t be close to the medals. Improving on her 11th-place showing in Rio is a good goal.
LRC prediction: 1. Chepkoech 2. Chespol 3. Kiyeng
Chepkoech, Chespol, Kiyeng and Jebet could conceivably finish in any order, but we’ll stick with the way they finished in Paris. Sub-9s are going to be somewhat common occurences in the women’s steeple because top flat runners like Chepkoech are now doing the event. Coburn could well break the American record and still come up short of a medal in London.