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Emma and Evan Leap over Barriers

July 21st, 2014

Trailed by long blond hair and many of the best steeplechasers in the world, Evan Jager and Emma Coburn have set the standard for Americans. With no big global championships available this year, it is the perfect time for Americans to run all-out with nothing to lose. Our barrier jumping compatriots have taken advantage of the opportunity to build on their legacy, fearless of the world’s best.

While the steeplechase may not garner equivalent attention to some other track events, its unique nature and potential for disaster makes for some loyal fans. When the best from each gender in the country’s history are reaching their peak at the same time, the event is doubly exciting.

Emma Coburn and Evan Jager dominating their discipline.

While growing up as a great athlete, Emma Coburn was not a high school prodigy. In the remote ski resort town of Crested Butte, Colorado, Emma combined her running with volleyball and basketball. She stamped her name all over her high school record books, from 400m to 3200m, and even the high jump, but none of her marks were particularly competitive on a national scale. She was a solid competitor in Colorado, getting fourth in the cross-country state meet in her junior and senior years. This is a great accomplishment for any young harrier but hardly indicative of a future Olympian and American record holder expectations.

Yet, she found her niche in the steeplechase early on in her career. The event is rarely run at the high school level and has only been an Olympic event for women in the last two Olympiads. That didn’t stop Emma from attacking the barriers at a young age where she placed 4th and 2nd nationally in the 2000m steeple in her junior and senior track seasons. The latter being the fifth fastest time for a high-schooler in the discipline. This was enough to get the attention of Colorado University and they offered her the opportunity to wear the Buffalo uniform following in the footsteps of many of the greatest runners this country has seen.

Evan, a year older than Emma, made his mark on the high school scene much firmer than Emma. With a 9th place finish in the Footlocker National Cross Country Championships his junior year and achievement of track bests of 4:05 in the mile and 8:47 in the two miles, he was a prized recruit of the University of Wisconsin.

With a crowded roster of fellow Badgers, Evan decided to redhsirt his first cross country and indoor track seasons to adjust to the rigors of training for NCAA track. He first put on a Wisconsin uniform during the outdoor track season and saw immediate success with an All-American finish in the national meet and an 8th place finish. This would be his only season as an NCAA athlete as his coach Jerry Schumacher left to coach a group of professional athletes in Portland’s version of the Oregon Track Club (now Bowerman Track Club) and Evan followed.

Forgoing his collegiate eligibility (though not his degree, he did continue schooling at Portland State) was a risky decision, it is extremely rare for track athletes to leave college early to compete professionally. While Evan was very good, he wasn’t yet a champion. His decision paid off very quickly though, as he earned a new mile best of 3:54 and finished 3rd at the USA outdoor championships against a stout field of older athletes (including yours truly) in a race where his training group swept the podium. The latter race earned him a trip to represent the USA at the World Track and Field Championships in Berlin.

While Evan was traveling the world, Emma was making her mark in Colorado. As a freshman, she finished 11th at the NCAA Championships and set the under-19 American record in the prelims at 10:06. She continued to improve year after year and by 2011 she won the NCAA Championships and the USA Championships to earn her spot on a USA roster for the World Championships in Daegu, Korea.

Emma’s rise corresponded with some tough times for Evan. While the track world kept flying forward, Evan endured a stress fracture early in 2010, which took him out of competition until 2012. He was left cross training in Portland while his teammates took to the track in Daegu along with Emma. As he started gaining fitness, the decision was made to turn him into a steeplechaser. The change was never announced to the track world so when his name appeared on the start list for the Mount SAC Relays, many were surprised. Most steeplechasers start their steepling early in college and gradually master the hurdling technique and the intricacies of running close to two miles over barriers. Many steeplechasers are specialists that take full advantage of their efficiency over the hurdles to excel in the event on a national scale while they are less competitive in other distances. For an accomplished 1500-5000m runner to jump into a steeple at 22 years old is rare, but his win in 8:26 showed that he might have found his new favorite event.

By the Olympic trials in 2012, Evan was the favorite. Being the returning national champion, Emma was also the favorite as she also decided to redshirt track to focus on earning her trip to London. Both Evan and Emma delivered on their expectations with Olympic Trials wins to earn their trip to the Olympics. Evan had the better summer, which saw him breaking Dan Lincoln’s steeplechase American record, and finishing 6th at the Olympics. Emma’s 9th place in the Olympics was hardly a disappointment though.

In 2013, Emma focused on finishing off her career at Colorado while Evan continued to run solid steeplechases. Both also dabbled in other distances with Emma winning the indoor NCAA mile and setting a personal record in the 1500 outdoors in 4:06 while Evan capped off his year with a 13:02 best in the 5k. Neither ran personal bests in the steeple but both came close.

With this year focused on making history with blazing times and competing regularly against the best, Evan and Emma turned heads early on to the Diamond League circuit. Emma won the Shanghai Diamond League in a personal record while Evan Jager came tantalizingly close to his American record in a second place finish in Oslo.

Last week Emma took to the track at the Glasgow Diamond League meet and in less than ideal conditions, made the American record her own. While she is quick to admit that Jenny Simpson is still the boss, the former record holder and her training partner has shifted events and is one of the best in the world in the 1500 and working out with her on a regular basis. Emma know there’s still work to be done. Evan wasn’t able to match Emma’s record setting performance with his opportunity in Monaco last week, but there is a lot of track left in the season for the two steeplechasers.

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