Published: Dec. 1, 2013 By

Emma Coburn What does it take to become an Olympian? Find out from Emma Coburn. 

As she stood near the end of the longest line of her life on July 27, 2012, Emma Coburn (Mktg’13) couldn’t help but reflect on the unlikely odds that a girl growing up in the remote ski town of Crested Butte, Colo., would be representing the U.S. and the University of Colorado in the opening ceremonies of the London Summer Olympics. 

Family genes all but dictated Coburn would attend CU. A grandparent, her parents and two older siblings attended CU, and her family lived in Boulder until her father Bill Coburn (Geol’82) relocated them to Crested Butte in 1998 (Emma was 7) for what he intended to be a one-year sabbatical. Instead it became their permanent residence.

“I was always raised a fan of the Buffs,’’ Coburn recalls. “My parents had season [football] tickets since before I was born. I went to my first game when I was 10. I sang the CU Fight Song before I learned my ABCs.’’

But winning two NCAA steeplechase championships for CU and competing in the Olympic finals in the event?

“I didn’t even think I wanted to run in college until my senior year of high school,’’ Coburn says. “It wasn’t part of my world. I can’t remember watching track in the Olympics until 2008.’’

Even when she blossomed into an eight-time Class 2A champion runner for Crested Butte High School and began considering running in college, Coburn had no idea she was good enough to compete for CU with its storied history of distance runners. She recalled having two binders with boxes to check “Run in College” and “Not Run in College’’ for each potential school. 

“I was almost certain that I was going to check “Not Run in College” and “Colorado,’’ Coburn says. “Luckily it worked out that they wanted me, so I checked the “Running” and “Colorado” boxes and haven’t looked back.’’

Growing up in outdoorsy Crested Butte and attending a small school (she was one of 19 in her graduating class), Coburn developed into an athlete-of-all-trades. She played basketball and volleyball and ran track and cross country in high school, and for recreation she skied, snowboarded, hiked, biked and played hockey.

“We were able to do all the sports we wanted to do,’’ she recalls. “It was nice to be in a small community that encouraged us to do a lot of things.’’

It proved to be the perfect blend of talents for the steeplechase, an unsanctioned event in high school track that requires a unique fusion of running and jumping over unyielding — and sometimes wet — barriers for 3,000 meters. Coburn thought she might fit the mold and “serendipitously” chose to run a 2,000-meter steeplechase prior to her junior year.

Emma Coburn

10+ pairs of running shoes per year

75-80 miles run each week

15-20 hours spent working out each week

It was a fortuitous discovery for Coburn and CU track coach Mark Wetmore who began recruiting Coburn soon after spotting her in her second steeplechase. Wetmore notes Coburn “was a mere 5:09 miler’’ in high school, “but we could see she was talented. Her times in those first steeplechases weren’t as important as how she handled the technical aspects, and she was good.’’

Wetmore and assistant coach Heather Burroughs signed Coburn in 2008 and groomed her to succeed Jenny Barringer Simpson (Econ, PolSci’09), a 2008 Olympian who won three NCAA steeplechase titles, the last one in ’09, and still holds the NCAA and U.S. records for the event.

I was almost certain that I was going to check “Not Run in College” and “Colorado.”

The steeplechase quickly became Coburn’s best event. She finished second in the NCAAs in 2010 before winning her first title the following year. After a redshirt year at CU, Coburn posted her career-best of 9:23.54 placing ninth at the London Olympics as one of the youngest runners on the U.S. track team. She returned to college competition in 2013 and capped her career by capturing her second NCAA title.

“I would say that Emma was a big surprise,’’ Wetmore says. “We knew she would be good, but she still is better than we expected. She ranks among the very best women we’ve had in my time. She is up there with Jenny and Kara Grgas-Wheeler Goucher (Psych’01), a two-time Olympian who won the NCAA 3,000, 1,000 and cross country titles in 2000. And she is still improving.’’

Coburn signed a pro contract with New Balance after finishing her college career but hasn’t competed since the NCAA meet because of a back problem she developed prior to her final NCAA run. But she has remained in Boulder as a volunteer assistant for Wetmore and Burroughs during her rehabilitation.

“I’m hoping to be in Boulder for a long time,’’ Coburn says.

That stay might include using her marketing degree and real estate certificate to work for her father’s company, Coburn Development, which designs and builds residences and commercial buildings — but only after going as far as she can in running.

“That’s definitely a plan for 10 years from now,’’ Coburn says. “I really want to focus on my current job and dreams.’’

Her ultimate short-term goals would be standing with her countrymen at the end of the 2016 Olympics parade of nations in Rio de Janeiro and winning a medal. Coburn has “zero regret’’ that the latter didn’t occur in London, adding, “I couldn’t be prouder of my performance.”
Aside from her effort on the track, Coburn’s fondest memory of the London Games remains participating in the opening ceremony, though while waiting outside the stadium the U.S. team missed the Queen Elizabeth II and James Bond stand-ins parachuting into the stadium.

“It was six hours of standing — we were one of the last nations to walk into the stadium — but I’d do it every day if I could,’’ she says.

Photography by Jeff Cohen/ (left) / Patrick Campbell (shoes)