CRESTED BUTTE -
A month ago, Emma Coburn told me if I couldn't be at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials to watch the finals of the women's 3,000-meter steeplechase, then the next best vantage point would be here at the Brick Oven Pizzeria.
But there was a stipulation: Coburn would have to be competing in the steeple finals, having advanced through the prelims earlier in the week in Eugene, Ore.
|Patrons of The Brick Oven Pizzeria in Crested Butte settle in for the U.S. Steeplechase finals.
She did her part, qualifying for Friday's finals with Monday's fastest time, and since a Thursday-Saturday trip to Crested Butte had been planned for over a month, I would do mine. The Brick Oven Pizzeria was the place to be Friday at 5:45 p.m. MDT.
Right about now, you're asking if the Coburns of Crested Butte are shareholders in this particular Elk Ave. eatery. The answer is no, but here's the tie-in: Three of the four Coburn siblings - Gracie, Emma and Willy - worked there. And in time, given that trio's reviews, a job might be waiting for youngest son Joe if he desires.
"If I'm in the finals," Emma told me, "the owner will have a TV showing it. They'll show all of my races they can."
Correct. I counted two TVs inside and one on the spacious patio, which is billed as the "best in town" and made a strong case for itself as such as the Coburn countdown began. There also was a Coburn watch party directly across Elk Ave. at Maxwell's, another of this funky, breathtaking mountain town's hot haunts.
But I went with Emma's recommendation, figuring from a story-telling standpoint, her former employers and a few co-workers had angles not to be found across the street. Good call . . . and that was before the pizza and beverages arrived.
Colleen Farrell, who has tended bar and worked as an out-front manager for 13 years at the bar/restaurant, hired Emma based on the good work that older sister Gracie had done. She figured it must run in the family - and she was right.
"Yeah, it had a lot to do with Gracie," Farrell said. "She was such a great worker, so (when Emma applied) I certainly said yes. Then Emma turned out to be just a delight; both of them were really fun."
Knowing both were runners, the "kitchen boys" - as Farrell described them - routinely challenged the Coburn sisters to races in the alley between the Brick Oven Pizzeria's old building and its spacious new digs next door.
"Neither one of (the Coburn sisters) were really sprinters," Farrell remembered with a laugh, "so sometimes the kitchen guys got lucky . . . but they wouldn't want to line up with Emma now in her event."
The restaurant is co-owned by Brian Schneider and Dan Loftus, who moved to Colorado from New York in 1996. Loftus also recalled Emma's work ethic and poise when "things kind of blew up out on the patio . . . when everyone else was getting frazzled - 'Oh, I've got too many tables, the credit card machine just broke, the pizza got burned, whatever . . .' - she stayed super cool. She's just real smart and put together."
Added Farrell: "She had an amazing work ethic. She was good with customers and made people happy. She did her job and never complained."
Crested Butte boasts a list of Winter Olympians, but if the town has produced a Summer Olympian, no one I talked to could identify him/her. No wonder Coburn's shot late Friday afternoon at making Team USA for next month's London Olympics had the Butte buzzing.
"It's such a small town that everyone follows everyone's athletic endeavors," Loftus said. "It's not every day when you have someone have a chance to go to the Olympics . . . everyone is on the bandwagon for Emma."
|Emma Coburn gets set to embrace fellow teammate and Olympian Shalaya Kipp.
In Monday's two qualifying heats, Coburn's time of 9:43.19 was the afternoon's fastest and a second-plus ahead of Nike's Bridget Franek (9:44.05). Coburn's University of Colorado teammate, Shalaya Kipp, ran second behind Coburn in their heat, finishing at 9:46.17, the day's fifth-fastest time.
Coburn and Kipp, respectively, were the 2011 and 2012 NCAA steeplechase champions, and with Jenny Barringer (now Simpson) winning the event in 2006, 2008 and 2009, CU could be calling itself "Steeplechase U."
Simpson's 9:12.50, run in 2008, is the American women's record, and loquacious Buffs track coach Mark Wetmore often finds himself close to speechless about that race. He has trouble believing anyone can beat that time. A couple of years ago when I was interviewing him for a story on Coburn, Wetmore had this to say about her: "She's going to be one of the greatest collegiate steeplechasers ever, we feel."
(An aside: Wetmore celebrated a birthday Friday in Eugene by rejoicing with another pair of CU Olympians. His list grows. I'm guessing he treated himself to a nice slice of key lime pie.)
At about 5:40 p.m. Friday, Loftus and most of the kitchen staff at the Brick Oven Pizzeria began milling around the flat screen TV mounted above the bar's left flank, or almost directly above the swinging kitchen doors that never seemed to stay closed for more than a second or two.
"Has it started yet?"
"Five minutes. Stay cool. There's Emma now."
When NBC's cameras panned the 3k steeplechase field and focused on Coburn, a cheer erupted. When Coburn broke from the pack almost immediately and eventually began building a 10-, then 15-, then 20-yard lead, the cheers gave way to chants of "Em-ma, Em-ma." Coburn had dominated the race.
She crossed the finish line in 9:32.78. Franek was second at 9:35.62, Kipp was third at 9:35.73. Two Buffs are headed for London and their sport's grandest stage as first-time Olympians. "Steeplechase U." indeed.
Loftus, Farrell and the rest of the Brick Oven Pizzeria crew aren't sure when they'll see Coburn again. The next month will be a blur for her, but Farrell said when Emma comes home, "She usually stops by here if she can. Everybody follows her here; everybody is really proud of her. It's good stuff."
About two hours after the race, after a thunderstorm had passed through and the pizza had disappeared, a wait staffer hurried by and announced, "Go outside right now, there's a crazy double rainbow . . . you gotta see it."
The town's favorite daughter is an Olympian, now officially in pursuit of gold, and the heavens appeared to be acknowledging it. Not a bad summer afternoon to be in Crested Butte.