Spoiler alert: This happened while many of us in the United States slept, but due to the time difference and people’s viewing habits, it won’t be shown on television until this evening. If you want to be surprised while you watch “live” this evening, you should just skip this. Or come back tomorrow.
Crested Butte produces a lot of blonde girls that grow up lithe, tall and self-confident. So far, although the tenor of the place may be changing once again even as we speak, due to the influx of huge money, it has been a great place to raise children who are athletic and outgoing, nurtured by the entire village, a village that not only cheers every success but is there to pick up after every stumble. I am sure many of these blonde girls have grown into elegant blonde women who find success in their chosen fields.
But maybe the most visible of all these lithe Crested Buttians is Emma Coburn. Thirty-one later this year, she has made a name for herself on an international level as a steeplechaser. She even has her own Wikipedia page — that’s how famous she is.
Steeplechase is an unusual event even among some very odd ones you find on the track or in the field. (I’m not sure why that metal ball is called a hammer, and no one should ever put me near one, because I would get dizzy spinning around and let go in the completely wrong direction.)
Steeplechase is English for “running with wet feet,” and I’m not sure why anyone would think of that as fun. In a modern steeplechase, the event is conducted on a track, not across the countryside studded with hedgerows, and both men and women run 3,000 meters (7.5 laps), which sounds dreadful enough before they put in the barriers that one has to jump over. And one of these barriers is followed by a water pit — a pit that slopes upward away from the barrier just to make this even more fun for your ankles.
Ms. Coburn — Emma — started her athletic career like so many other kids in the Gunnison Valley, trying her hand at a little of everything. I first encountered her and her sister Grace when they came to Gunnison for middle-school volleyball matches.
By high school, though, running had become Emma’s thing, and she settled in at the middle distances, going to camps and other specialization efforts that earned her a scholarship to the University of Colorado, which has a highly reputable cross country and track program. Somewhere in there, she focused on the steeplechase, a decision that has paid off very handsomely for her even as it’s meant spending her life with wet feet.
In 2012 she entered her first Olympics and placed eighth, a very respectable finish for an American woman, but that was just the beginning. She won the bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the first medal in the discipline for U.S. women. She earned silver at the 2019 world championships, second best in the whole entire world.
She holds the American record, and has won the national championship nine times, including every year from 2014 through this year (except 2020, when the championships were not held). She is a world-renown steeplechaser, and even those of us who only officiated her middle-school volleyball matches are very proud of her accomplishments.
A literal shirttail attachment to her are the shirts we’ve printed at Pat’s for her and her family, including the “Go Emma” shirts her family wore at this year’s Olympics qualifier and ones with the same message that got sent last week to her grandpa and other residents and staff at his care facility near Emma’s current home of Boulder.
Her grandpa presumably wore his shirt Saturday evening here when Emma ran Sunday in Japan (you don’t need sci-fi shows to be able to blow your mind with time issues) in an easy semi-final. The top three runners advanced automatically to the final that took place late today in Japan, very early today in the U.S.
In the semi, Emma started out with two women from African countries as they roared away from everyone else in the heat (trackwise and literal — it’s been in the 90s in Tokyo). She let the two Africans duke it out as she coasted to an easy third place — a good, fairly gentle race where she didn’t have to exert herself unnecessarily. The finals looked promising for the defending bronze medalist.
But not every Olympic story ends the way we all want.
Emma fell this morning. It was late in a race she wasn’t going to medal in anyway. Countrywoman Courtney Frerichs, another tall blonde woman, broke away from the field with about three laps to go, and while a few women surged toward her, Emma and another of the race favorites started going backward.
And then Emma fell, on one of the last hurdles of the race. She picked herself up and finished, but somewhere in there, off-camera, officials judged that she had committed a lane infraction and she was disqualified. So she made the finals but did not place — that’s the official record.
How heartbreaking! Courtney Frerichs got caught in the home stretch and thus didn’t win, but she earned silver, so now she is the highest-placed woman the U.S. has ever seen in the Olympic steeplechase, and that distinction is gone too.
But Emma Coburn is from Crested Butte, and if that is the secret to her successes, it is also the recipe for her stumbles. Crested Butte, the village that raised her, will always be there for her. Is always there for her. Especially now.
They do not love Emma because she is a national champion and a world-class steeplechaser. They love her in spite of that. Or alongside that. They love her alongside all the other blonde girls who have gone on to successes — and stumbles — that are not as visible on a world stage. She is weft and warp of the fabric of this quirky little town at the end of the road, and it is woven so tightly that there is no way Emma will ever be allowed to fall without being caught.
So you go, Emma. Hardly what you hoped for or envisioned, hardly what the rest of us were hoping for on your behalf, but bad days sometimes happen when they are least wanted, and that was today for you. It is going to hurt for a very long time, but you will put this behind you and move on to your next success. There are other days ahead, other opportunities.
And always — always! — the spirit of Crested Butte at your back.