Courtney Frerichs Goes for Gold and Rewarded With Silver as Peruth Chemutai Gets Surprise Gold

August 4, 2021

TOKYO — Courtney Frerichs made Steve Prefontaine proud.

Running an incredibly gutsy race, Frerichs seized the lead in the women’s steeplechase with a mile to go and began pushing the pace, dropping a 70.2 lap to bring the field to two kilometers in 6:05.2 (the first kilometer was 3:05.2). With three laps to go the field had been whittled down to seven, but Frerichs wasn’t done, and by the backstetch of the next lap, it was down to two, Frerichs and Peruth Chemutai of Uganda; by two laps to go, Frerichs had gapped the entire field thanks to a 68.6 She was running for gold. With 600m to go, her lead was almost 10 meters. If she could keep it up, the gold was hers.

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Chemutai cut into the lead a little bit by the bell (seven meters) as Frerichs had slowed to 70.3 for her penultimate lap, and overtook Frerichs with just under 300 to go. Frerichs was unable to respond and Chemutai ran to gold thanks to a 69.2 close, crossing the line triumphantly by putting her hand in the air to celebrate gold in a pb of 9:01.45. Frerichs held on for silver in 9:04.79, the third-fastest time of her life (74.1 last 400), as Hyvin Kiyeng of Kenya got bronze in 9:05.39. American Emma Coburn was not a factor once Frerichs pushed the pace. She would fall after going over a barrier on the final lap and finish the race in 14th, only to be disqualified for stepping over the rail.

Chemutai’s gold was definitely not expected. Her best finish outside of Uganda this year in a steeple was 5th at the Ethiopian Trials. Until her preliminary heat on Sunday, she had not broken 9:20 in almost two years.

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Analysis and athlete reaction below the results.

1 UGA Peruth CHEMUTAI 9:01.45 NR
2 USA Courtney FRERICHS 9:04.79 SB
3 KEN Hyvin KIYENG 9:05.39
4 ETH Mekides ABEBE 9:06.16
5 GER Gesa Felicitas KRAUSE 9:14.00
6 SLO Maruša MIŠMAŠ-ZRIMŠEK 9:14.84 NR
7 KEN Beatrice CHEPKOECH 9:16.33
8 ETH Zerfe WONDEMAGEGN 9:16.41 PB
9 GBR Elizabeth BIRD 9:19.68 NR
10 BRN Winfred Mutile YAVI 9:19.74
11 CAN Geneviève LALONDE 9:22.40 NR
12 USA Valerie CONSTIEN 9:31.61
13 ALB Luiza GEGA 9:34.10
14 ESP Carolina ROBLES 9:50.96

Courtney Frerichs ran out of steam the final 400

Frerichs is not known for her closing speed, so she tried to make it a test of fitness and fortitude over the final mile. She almost pulled it off, but paid the price on the final lap.

Once Frerichs made her move for glory she ran 400m splits of 70.7, 69.2, and 70.8, but then she faded to 74.1 for the final 400 (they are 400 splits not lap splits, we listed lap splits above).

Chemutai managed to have a little something left the final lap and went 71.1, 69.8, 71.1, and 69.8 for the final 400, which was enough for gold.

Frerichs tried to channel Evan Jager with a brave move from a mile out

After Sunday’s prelims, Frerichs met with her coach Jerry Schumacher and formulated a plan for the final. After assessing the field and Frerichs’ strengths as a runner, they decided that the best option was for Frerichs to push the pace from a long way out, just as Frerichs did at the Olympic Trials and just as her Bowerman TC teammate Evan Jager did in the 2016 Olympic final.

“My strength as a runner is my strength,” Frerichs said. “It’s not leaving it down to the foot speed at the end.”

For a while, it looked as if Frerichs’ bold move would result in a gold medal as she was able to break everyone save for the eventual champion, Peruth Chemutai. She wound up having to settle for silver — the same medal Jager earned in Rio five years ago.

“I just tried to channel Evan as best as I could,” Frerichs said. “He’s done that a lot. And it’s paid off.”

Frerichs admitted it was scary for her to take the lead as this was her first time in a big international race since the 2019 Worlds and her first time leading a big international race, period. But she also knew she was in the shape of her life coming into the race.

“I honestly just felt so confident with how my training’s been going,” Frerichs said. “And I just I felt like it was going to be the right thing to do. And [BTC assistant coach] Shalane [Flanagan] told me going into it that if I made that move, I’d have no regrets, even if it meant coming up short. So I really tried to lean into that.”

Frerichs leaned on some Bowerman TC legends for support. She’s quickly becoming one herself.

In addition to channeling Jager, Frerichs credited Flanagan for getting her mentally prepared for the Olympics. In her final big workout before Tokyo, Frerichs had a stomach bug and wound up vomiting on the track and bagging the session. Flanagan helped her to see that not everything has to go perfectly to create a great outcome.

She dealt with a very similar situation in Beijing in 2008 and walked away with a medal so I had a really great person to rely on, on how to deal with adversity going into one of the biggest moments of your career,” Frerichs said.

Though Frerichs was able to get the session done a few days later, she was still sick ahead of the flight to Tokyo and wasn’t even sure she would get on the plane. Again, a reassuring text from Flanagan helped assuage those doubts.

As Frerichs celebrated her silver medal, she also thought about her BTC teammate Shelby Houlihan — who is banned after a positive test for nandrolone but whom Frerichs still supports.

I really wanted to show up for her today,” Frerichs said. “You know, she’s one of my best friends. She texted me today telling me to go out there and be myself. She knew I could do it.”

Frerichs has looked up to athletes like Jager and Flanagan, but there is now a generation of athletes who will be looking up to her. World Championship silver in 2017, an American record in 2018, and now Olympic silver in 2021. And at 28, with four championships in the next four years, she will have the opportunity to add to those accomplishments. Could the first sub-9:00 by an American be far off? Frerichs and Coburn will take their latest crack at the Pre Classic in two weeks.

“I know one of us is going to break that 9:00 barrier,” Frerichs said. “I know it’s there. It’s kind of haunting us at this point. And you know, that field for Prefontaine looks pretty awesome.”

Emma Coburn said her body “shut down”

Emma Coburn very rarely has bad races, and never when it matters. The two fastest times of her career have come in global finals, and she entered tonight’s final having medalled in the last three global championships. To see Coburn fall of the pace, fall, finish 14th, and get disqualified for stepping over the rail was beyond shocking.

Coburn, to her credit, stayed in the mixed zone for 15 minutes answering everything that was asked of her. But as for the $64,000 question — what went wrong today? — Coburn was as puzzled as the rest of us. She said she is fitter than she was at the Olympic Trials and has been running workouts she has never done before.

“I was just shutting down,” Coburn said. “My mind was in it. The bodies were pulling away from me and I was still being like, alright, fight for fifth, fight for sixth. And at a certain point, it’s no longer a choice and your body just starts breaking down,

“I should be able to close fast off 6:05 for 2k. In Monaco, we were 6:00 at 2k, but I felt great. So I don’t think there was an error in training. I think I’m in really good shape. It sucks to suck on the biggest stage.

“…Just felt like shit today in that second half — and not even like feeling like shit closing and 75. Feeling like shit closing in 90, or I don’t even know what I closed it.”

As for Frerichs, whose career record now improves to 2-18 against Coburn, Coburn said gave her credit for making such a strong move.

“I thought she earned that gold today,” Coburn said.

Who is Peruth Chemutai?

Unless you really are an insider or watched the first round, where she likely caught your attention by running 9:12 and hurdling the water jump with ease without touching the barrier, you can be forgiven for not knowing who Peruth Chumutai was before tonight.

After all, she went out in the first round of Rio, was 7th and 10th in her two DL appearances in 2017 when she also went out in the first round of Worlds, was 7th, 6th, and 7th in three DLs in 2018, was 3rd, 7th, and 10th in three DLs in 2019 when she got 5th at Worlds and was 8th in Doha earlier this year.

But those stats don’t tell the whole story. Chemutai was clearly a talent as she is young, only turning 22 on July 10. So that means 10 days after turning 19 in 2019, she ran 9:07 in Monaco and then got 5th at Worlds. That came a year after winning World U20 silver in 2018.

If not for COVID, perhaps she would have really shined in 2020. As for her lackluster results this year, while she was only 8th in Doha on May 28 (9:22) and 5th in Hengelo at the Ethiopian Trials which she ran as a guest (9:33), Chemutai revealed she was battling a left Achilles problem. 

Chemutai is coached by Addy Ruiter, who basically coaches all of Uganda’s top talents outside of Jacob Kiplimo. He’s the coach of Joshua Cheptegei and Halimah Nakaayi, which means his group now includes the women’s Olympic steeple champ in addition to the reigning world champions in the men’s 10,000 and women’s 800.

Betting favorite Hyvin Kiyeng was happy to have earned bronze

Kiyeng made history tonight by becoming the first woman to earn two Olympic steeplechase medals. However, since she was the betting favorite before the Olympics and won silver in Rio and bronze tonight, you might think she would be disappointed with third. And you’d be wrong.

Kiyeng told she was “very satisfied” with the bronze as her left hamstring is injured and its “not easy” to earn a medal “with a problem.”

World record holder Beatrice Chepkoech knew she was screwed before this one even began

Chepkoech told us that after the prelims, her hamstring injury flared up and was painful. She had taken a painkiller to get through the first round and knew when it started hurting the day after the prelim in the Olympic village she was in trouble for the final where her aim simply turned to finishing the race.

Chepkoech added that she thinks her fitness is actually pretty good right now and that she could break 9:00 if her body would allow her to compete and hurdle pain-free. If her injury gets better, she may continue to compete this summer as a result.

5th placer Gesa-Felicitas Krause wasn’t shocked that Chemutai won or that Frerichs medalled

2015 and 2019 world championship bronze medallist Gesa-Felicitas Krause of Germany didn’t medal tonight but she did move up one spot from her Rio finish of 6th to 5th. The 29-year-old obviously wanted to medal and said she “fought for it.”

We asked the veteran Krause for her thoughts on the race. She said wasn’t surprised that Frerichs did so well as she said she’s a “great championship racer” and could tell Frerichs was “super fit” a few days ago when they both ran in prelim #2 and went 1-2. Krause said she expected someone to make a big mid-race surge but was surprised that Frerichs was that person. As for Chemutai’s win, Krause was impressed by how Chemutai was hurdling the water jump without touching it and not losing any momentum. Based on that, Krause determined Chemutai was “probably in great shape” despite not having run faster than 9:22 before Tokyo this year (she ran 9:12 in the first round).

6th placer Maruša Mišmaš-Zrimsek of Slovenia wanted to give herself a chance and she did exactly that

It was hard not to be impressed with Mišmaš-Zrimsek tonight. The 26-year-old started the year with a 9:20.68 pb and came into the Olympics with a modest 9:16.82 pb but she ran boldly. She said the goal was to herself a chance to medal and she did exactly that as she stayed with Kiyeng until about 650 meters remained. In the end, she ended up 6th in a national record time of 9:14.84.

Canada’s Geneviève Lalonde set her second straight national record in Tokyo

In the first round, Lalonde busted out from the high 9:20s and ran a 9:22.64 NR. She bettered that by a smaller amount tonight by running 9:22.40 to finish 11th, 5 spots better than in Rio.

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