BOULDER – Assuming steeplechasers are made not born – and that seems to be the case at the University of Colorado – track coach Mark Wetmore and his staff have done a pretty nice job with the assembly line work.
Wetmore and Billy Nelson, who mainly coaches the steeplers, don’t typically launch a recruiting trip that targets an athlete who can negotiate hurdles, water barriers and the frequent chaos inherent to the 3,000 meter event.
Popular at the college level, the steeplechase is a no-show in most high school track circles . . . thus, the difficulty for Wetmore and Nelson in identifying scholarship-worthy prospects. But that’s been no barrier whatsoever for CU.
Nelson, who won Big 12 steeplechase titles for CU in 2007 and 2008, was a 2008 Beijing Olympian and won the 2011 USATF title in the event, is Wetmore’s recruiting coordinator. “But we can rarely look at high school steeplechasers,” he says. “It’s just not that big in high school yet – I say yet, but it never has been. Some East Coast states – New York, New Jersey – have it, but California doesn’t even have it at its state meet.”
So when Wetmore and Nelson are on the hunt for future Buffaloes, uncovering a top-flight steepler isn’t done accidentally but it does require a little good fortune. Said Nelson: “As for going out and seeing high school steeplers, no . . . but we do take a look different things – how they train, what their aspirations are, their structure.”
And they do seem to know what to look for, particularly on the women’s side of the race. Beginning with victories by the former Jenny Barringer (now Simpson) in 2006, 2008 and 2009, Buffs have won six of the past eight NCAA championships. Emma Coburn won in 2011 and 2013, and Shalaya Kipp was the 2012 winner while Coburn redshirted that outdoor season to train for the London Olympics. Kipp, now a senior and CU’s NCAA Woman Of The Year nominee, will try to further CU’s magnificent NCAA run next week (June 11-14) in Eugene, Ore.
“They’re all CU people so it makes us feel good about it,” Nelson said. “What they brought to the event has brought it – and us – a little more limelight.”
KIPP OWNS THE WORLD’S second-fastest 3,000-meter steeplechase time this year – a 9:39.12 clocked in early May at the Payton Jordan Invitational in Stanford, Calif. On a hot and muggy course last week in Fayetteville, Ark., she ran what Wetmore called “a businesslike race” in the NCAA West Prelims and qualified for the NCAA Championships with a 10:03.87.
Baylor’s Rachel Johnson had the NCAA West meet’s fastest time (9:53.56). By comparison on the same course, Simpson (then Barringer) ran a 9:25.54 in 2009 that still stands as the fastest college time and one that Wetmore still sees as otherworldly. In mid-May, Kipp won the Pac-12 Conference steeplechase title with a time of 10:04.19.
Next week in Eugene, according to Nelson, the women’s and men’s NCAA steeplechase fields should be deeper than in years past, particularly in the third through tenth positions. On the men’s side, CU also has a qualifier in junior Blake Theroux, who ran a personal best (8:49.95) last week in Fayetteville and finished fourth. BYU’s Curtis Carr has the fastest Division I time this season – an 8:37.54 run in April at the Mt. SAC Relays.
A middle-distance runner at Salt Lake City’s Skyline High School, Kipp entered steeplechasing in typical CU fashion. “Usually we have a day for incoming freshmen where we say today’s the steeplechase day,” Nelson said. “Anyone interested let’s do some stuff, some technical work and see where it goes.”
Where it initially went for Kipp was, well, nowhere. Wetmore, she recalled, “held me back after practice one day and I tried to go over some hurdles. He said, ‘Oh, that’s enough; you don’t need to come back the next day.’ I was like, ‘OK, I’m not going to be a steeplechaser.’ And I really didn’t have my heart set on it, so it was fine.”
But about a month later, Wetmore issued a second call to Kipp and told her, “I think we should resurrect the idea of you being a steeplechaser. So then he had me go over some water jumps and said, ‘Yes, you’re a steeplechaser.’ So I said, ‘OK.’ We did a couple of races and got better and better and I fell in love with the event . . . it’s definitely my favorite now.”
If it wasn’t love at first sight, it’s understandable. Steeplechasing demands speed, strength, stamina, endurance and guile – all ingredients Nelson still knows something about. Running unattached, he clocked an 8:28.42 – the best American time, fifth place overall – in last month’s Seiko Grand Prix in Tokyo.
And among steepling’s prerequisites, added Nelson, don’t forget the ability “to stay calm when chaos kind of consumes the race or something happens. Being calm is the main thing. There’s going to be hiccups in a steeplechase versus a flat race. You have to jump barriers, the water jump . . .
“Staying calm in chaos is something you definitely have to either learn or have in your DNA . . . that’s the main thing – not getting worked up. There’s going to be more bashing in a group. Your heart rate is going to spike throughout the race. Falling down is more likely to happen in a steeplechase. Let the race give you what it’s going to give you, stay calm and have multiple plans going in if something happens. You can coach the technical stuff; you can’t coach the staying calm, a heart rate that spikes and stays up.”
OUTWARDLY, KIPP SEEMS CALM enough – but that might be because she’s learning to dial back the emotions and steady herself when she must. Training with and observing Coburn has helped, too. “She’s a really calm person; she can calm my mind down,” Kipp said.
A close friend even before both qualified for the 2012 Olympics, Coburn has also offered technical advice, noted Kipp: “I remember when I was having trouble learning to kick over the last barrier, she was always yelling at me when I should be taking off. I was approaching too close to the barrier.
“When I watch Emma, my hurdling becomes better. Just (recently) I did a workout where she started in front of me. Whenever you get to watch someone with such great technique in front of you, your own technique becomes better.”
In one sense, CU’s recent run of NCAA steeplechase champs baffles Nelson. “Honestly, I don’t know (why),” he said. “Mark (Wetmore) always jokes that it’s the only event he never competed in. He’s done everything from the 100 meters to the marathon. The steeplechase is one thing he doesn’t do.
“But I think it just takes aspects of our training and applies them to the track, really. It is a strength and a speed event. You could be a miler who does a steeplechase or a 10k guy that can do it. I think it adds a lot of aspects of cross country. There’s definitely a similarity there – staying calm because a lot of cross country courses are muddy, hilly, things like that. It’s adapting to what the course gives you and that’s the main thing with the steeplechase.
“And then, maybe our training kind of gears you for that; it’s about how we train for it and what we do for it. We do a lot of other things differently than other programs from the people I’ve talked to over the years. I think Mark might have a little secret mix of training that other people don’t do. And I think it’s just fun, too.”
Based on her four-year body of work in competition at CU and on the national/international scene, Nelson believes Kipp is “among the best in the world. (But) I think she even has room for improvement.” The next leap, noted Nelson, can happen in the categories of staying calm, refining her techniques in the water jump and in the hurdles and attaining comfort levels in each that will help her conserve energy.
“I don’t believe she’ll be one of these people who graduates college and kind of falls off,” Nelson said. “She wants to learn, she wants to get better. Her future is definitely an open road as long as she stays happy, healthy and continues wanting to do it.”
The fire isn’t likely to go out. Despite her steeplechase success, Kipp is well-grounded enough to admit, “I think I’m still adjusting. Hopefully it all gets better the longer my career goes on. It takes a while, but I’m enjoying myself more than I would have thought possible.”