THAT TOKYO MOVE. Gutsy? Daring? Courageous? Whatever you call it, the surge Courtney Frerichs threw down about halfway into the Olympic steeplechase final rates as one of the ballsiest moves by an American distance runner in memory.
Her competitors didn’t figure Frerichs to be a medal threat, so they didn’t have her big move anywhere on their bingo cards. Ranked only No. 7 on the formchart going in, the Trials runner-up blasted into the lead on Tokyo’s sizzling-hot Mondo surface and didn’t look back. Behind her, any semblance of a comfortable pack race disintegrated as world champions and WR holders strung out in disarray, all wondering something along the lines of “What the hell?”
The bold plan gelled after the heats when she sat down with coach Jerry Schumacher: “We were assessing how I looked in some of the races earlier in the year when I would move to the front, looking at some of my strengths as an athlete and what I needed the race to look like to try to get on the podium.
“Jerry started to put the idea in my head that I might need to be the one to make the move. Looking at previous years, there was always somebody that we felt confident would be that person. And it didn’t seem like there was really anybody that was going to try to run away with it. He just really felt confident that if the race wasn’t going super-fast from the beginning, that I could go to the front and make it a hard race and still come away with potentially a spot on the podium.
“He gave me a little bit of freedom in terms of testing my instincts as to when to go. It felt necessary to be prepared as early as 1000m. I was definitely really nervous about it. Obviously, I had been making those sorts of moves and pushing from the front quite a bit this season, but just never on that stage. So I just reminded myself, ‘You’ve done this before. This might be a different race, but you know you can do this.’”
Key advice came from Bowerman TC assistant Shalane Flanagan, Frerichs explains: “She said, ‘I really feel like if you put yourself out there, you’ll walk away with no regrets, no matter what the result is.’
“I felt that was true, because one of the biggest things from Rio that I took away was that I never wanted to feel like I had run safe again. Because you leave questioning if you should have done more, versus taking risks and really putting yourself out there at that stage, knowing that you put your best foot forward.”
She thought back to teammate Evan Jager’s steeple race in the ’16 Games, when the AR holder took over for three laps and fought his way to silver after being passed at the bell: “It really stuck with me. It wasn’t just the result. He took that race and he made it what he needed to be successful that day. You could tell he wasn’t thinking about anything else other than how to use the skills and tools he had to be successful.
“For the last 5 years, I tried to think about that. ‘How do I toe the line at the Olympics so confident that I have all the tools and skills necessary that there isn’t any wasted energy worrying about others, that it’s just me executing my best self that day?’”
She admits she was still racked with tension in the moment of the move: “That first 400 I went to the front was definitely the most terrifying. I stopped thinking about what was happening behind me. I really had no idea if anyone was going with me, but once I got 400m in, I started to slowly gain more confidence and I really let go of everything else other than just focusing on being decisive and running hard.
“I think that was what caught a lot of people off-guard. I’m normally this cautious, calculated person and that really hard lap from 1200 to go to 800 was not calculated. I honestly didn’t even realize I’d run as fast as I did. I was just trying to focus on running the kick out of everybody’s legs—and that included my own legs.”
Soon close observers noticed Uganda’s Peruth Chemutai coming to life and beginning to narrow the gap to the runaway American.
“I got to like 600 to go and I was still feeling pretty good. It hadn’t occurred to me that I was slowing down too much. I was really thinking I was going to win this race. I came around the bell lap and I’m starting to feel the fatigue a lot. And then I hit 300 to go and the wheels are really starting to come off there.
“I could feel her behind me, but thankfully, Jerry had forewarned me, ‘You may go to the front and you may make the pace really hard and people are probably still going to be there. With 300 to go, everyone may come around you and you have to be prepared for that moment. But in that moment, you can’t just assume that they’re feeling better than you. That may be the last thing they have. You have to do everything you can to go with them and keep focusing on what’s ahead versus assuming because you’re getting passed it’s over.’
“I stuck with her for about 50m and through the water, she was just so strong. She ran a phenomenal race. And I think focusing all my energy on continuing forward versus thinking about what was going on behind me kept me executing my form as best as I could.”
She adds, “It was good that I was prepared that someone might come around. Had that happened and I had not been prepared, I think you can psychologically put yourself out of the race at that point and shut down.”
Afterwards, when Frerichs took up the American flag, the enormity of her accomplishment struck her, along with the tears: “That’s when it all really hit me, just 5 years of serious focus. I’m really proud of the person I was on that starting line. I’m really proud of the person I was in that race. I walked away feeling like I ran to my potential and really left it all out there.”
Then 2½ weeks later at the Prefontaine Classic, the 28-year-old delivered on another dream, becoming the first American under the 9:00 barrier with her 8:57.77 runner-up performance (see chart). That, too, was a long time coming. (Continued below)
“When I ran 9:00.85 [in ’18], it seemed like we were just around the corner from it happening, whether it be Emma [Coburn] or I. It was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re here! This is happening!’ I just thought for sure it was going to be just a matter of time. For it to be 3 years was like, ‘Maybe this isn’t ever going to happen.’
“But I felt so confident with how training had been going and to be coming off the Olympics knowing I was in good shape. There were a lot of competitors that were in a really good place. So the competition would be there and for it to be in the U.S. was really special. It’s not very often that you get to run in these fast distance races in the U.S. in front of a crowd like you get at Hayward. It definitely made it worth it to be able to share it with so many people.”
Yet Frerichs’ path to where she is now was not all a jubilant victory tour. She admits that the events surrounding teammate Shelby Houlihan’s ban made it tough to focus on her own needs: “To see someone that you care so much about have to go through something like this is a lot, you know, and obviously my experience with it all pales in comparison to what she has had to go through, but it’s certainly been challenging. So no matter what, I’m going to stand by her and support my friend.”
Then at the Trials, Frerichs took a hard tumble in the heats that could have cost her everything: “I had a serious moment of panic, waiting for something to really hurt. I’ve fallen enough in my life doing gymnastics and soccer to know that when you go down like that, it’s not always going to turn out.”
Then she fell sick in her final training block in Hawai‘i before departing for Tokyo, a stomach bug that had her wondering if she should even get on the plane: “I certainly had a little more drama getting to the line than I would have liked, between the fall and the sickness and everything, but thankfully we’ve been working really hard on taking things one step at a time instead of assuming that it has to play out in an exact linear path to get there.”
Now Frerichs looks ahead, to her season-ending race at Zürich and then a long break before she embarks on the next championship season.
“I really think I’m just starting to find my stride now,” she says. “Now that I’m moving into my peak age and now that I’ve really addressed the mental side of the sport and learning to be more resilient in training and in racing, I’m very excited that if I continue to carry this mindset that I’ll keep not setting limits on myself.
“That’s what it takes, constantly putting yourself in those races. It’s not going to pay off every single time, but you’ll always be there when the opportunities do present themselves to take advantage of them.”