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Courtney Frerichs — November, 2017
Courtney Frerichs is the 2017 World Championships Silver Medalist in the 3,000 meter steeplechase. She was a 2016 Olympian, finishing 11th in the steeplechase. Courtney won the 2016 NCAA championships in the 3,000 meter steeplechase in a collegiate and meet record of 9:24.41. She finished fourth at the 2017 U.S. Cross Country Championships, but declined a World Championships slot to focus on track. At the NCAA Cross Country Championships her highest finish was fourth place her senior year when she led New Mexico to the team title. Frerichs earned seven NCAA Division I All-American honors competing in Cross Country, and Indoor and Outdoor Track and Field for the University of Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos and the New Mexico Lobos. She also won eleven conference championships. As a youth, Courtney focused on gymnastics and soccer and only added high school running during her senior year. On limited training she ran 18:12 for cross country 5k as a prep. Her personal best times are: 1,500 meters - 4:18.92; mile - 4:31.0 (road); 3,000 meters - 8:53.99; 3,000 meters steeplechase – 9:03.77 and 5,000 meters – 15:31.62. Courtney earned a Bachelor of Arts in Chemistry from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and Master of Community Health Education from New Mexico. She was honored as the 2016 NCAA Division I Outdoor Track and Field Scholar Athlete of the Year. Courtney races for the Bowerman Track Club and resides in Portland, Oregon with her husband, Griffin and their cat, ‘Roo.’ She was so kind to spend ninety minutes on the telephone for this interview.
GCR: It’s been three months since you placed second in the London World Championship and earned the Silver Medal. Has it set in that when we look at the ranks of World Championships medalists that your name is forever etched in stone?
AA It is slowly becoming more real. But sometimes I have to pull the medal out to believe it actually happened. It’s such a dream come true.
GCR: Medaling at the Olympics or World Championships is a goal of most athletes, especially after they enter the top ten or fifteen in the world in their event. How did the achievement compare when it actually occurred with the anticipation of how you thought it would be? And did it come earlier and a bit surprisingly compared to what you may have anticipated in your career?
AA It was definitely earlier than I anticipated. That’s for sure. I kind of had my sights set on being in the medal conversation for the 2020 Olympics. I thought that I would be using the next four years from my first major international competition at the Rio Olympics to be prepared and to be in that conversation for 2020. So, it was certainly earlier than expected, but I’m glad to have it that way. I think the moment was even more amazing than I could have ever imagined. The amount of emotion that I was overcome with was just unbelievable. And then being able to share it with somebody was really special. It made it way more special to share it with Emma Coburn. In my head it was such a dream come true for me to be there, but then to have somebody else, it was just absolutely incredible.
GCR: We will talk about that race in more detail, but first, after a very successful collegiate career at the University of Missouri – Kansas City and a final season at New Mexico when you were in grad school, you chose to run for Nike and the Bowerman Track Club and to be coached by Jerry Schumacher and Pascal Dobert. How smooth was the change to a new city, new coaches and new training partners and how important are your professional coaches and teammates to your success as an athlete?
AA The transition was good, but it was difficult. It isn’t anything to do with the group or the people, but going professional was like going away to college. There are a lot of new things. I still believe I put myself in the best team and situation and environment as possible. I’m so happy that I’m with the Bowerman Track Club and have an amazing group of women to train with and have amazing coaches. I think they were key in helping me through that transition. Just like when you go away to college, when you go professional there is a lot of learning to do. The level of competition increases drastically. I was training with a lot of women who have been training at a very high level for a long time so I had to constantly remind myself that I can’t play the comparison game and I had to focus on myself day in and day out. The girls on my team are just absolutely amazing in helping me. They’ve been in my shoes before and I hope to give back one day when we add new members to the team. It’s a process and we have to take it one step at a time. We all want to be good yesterday, but we have to take it step by step. Being a member of BTC was so huge in my success this year. I owe those girls and my coaches, Jerry and Pascal, a lot in helping me to really be ready for the international stage this year.
GCR: You mentioned about the four year cycle of getting ready for the next Olympics and with your personal best time of 9:19 there were quite a few ladies in the World Championships field who that came into the race 15 to 20 seconds faster than you. What did you do in your training and race preparation to mentally, emotionally and physically prepare to challenge for a podium position when it presented itself? Maybe you didn’t think it was going to present itself, but when it did, what had you done so that you were able to say to yourself, ‘Hey, I’m going to take advantage of this opportunity?’
AA One thing that Jerry and a lot of the girls picked up on was my tendency to be over calculated. I definitely struggled with that in Rio with the need to be constantly looking at the clock and breaking down pace and be thinking of the pace I should be running at each point instead of really being engaged in the race itself. So we were working very hard this summer on me focusing on instincts and going with it in a workout. It was okay if it was a little fast and so I was learning that in practice and the girls were so helpful. They’d say, ‘C’mon Courtney, you’re sticking on us. You’re going to stay with us.’ There was no question of what I was going to do with them. That was going to happen. That prepared me for that race. When Jerry said, ‘I want you to go with Emma - I want you to put yourself in the race,’ it was just like practice where I had run with some of the best women in the world, so I was ready to race some of the best women in the world. I found myself able to really focus on instincts and trusting myself so that when it came time to make a move on the last lap I didn’t even know where that came from. It felt right and I went for it. That was something we really worked on in practice and it was neat to be able to see that develop throughout this year and to have people that would help out and help me to put aside some of my fears of going out just a little fast. It helped me to really be able to see what would happen and to challenge myself.
GCR: Some of the Kenyan or Ethiopian runners work together in races. Did you and Emma Coburn discuss working together or did it just happen that you were in the lead group together and maybe you were able to help each other?
AA It just so happened that we were near each other. There wasn’t any conversation of tackling it together. My plan was to eye off of her because she has so much international experience and really has gained a lot of respect on the international stage from the Kenyans and the Ethiopians and the Bahraini athletes. I knew that if I was able to stay close with Emma that she was going to execute a really good race. It was very apparent early on when I was running next to her that we were becoming a bigger force, and especially so on that last lap. When they looked around and saw two of us we became something bigger than ourselves. That was so key in us being able to accomplish what we did. It is really important moving forward as they now realize in a lot of events, but especially in the steeple, that the U.S. athletes are right there with them and that’s really exciting. It was very intimidating stepping on the line and knowing that Kenya had four athletes alone in the race representing Kenya because they had the wildcard athlete who had won the precious World Championships. We get to have that in 2019 which is so exciting and I think we’re in such a great place moving forward since we will be able to have so many U.S. women at the top
GCR: Let’s take an in-depth look at your World Championships race. If we go back to the early part of the race, there was water jump drama as at the first water jump Beatrice Chepkoech ran wide past the barrier and had to double back to go over the water jump. Then the second time over the barrier several runners went down. I’ve raced the steeplechase in college and there sure are ample challenges and instances where something bad can happen. How complicated do these barriers make the steeplechase compared to other distance races in your approach to racing when compared to a flat 3,000 meters or a 1,500 meter race?
AA The barriers definitely present some challenges because you have to jump while you’re trying to run. Also, you can’t zone out like you can in a lot of distance races. You really have to be focused the entire time. The reality of the steeplechase is there is never going to be a perfect steeplechase. There are always going to be things happening. You’re going to get clipped. You’re going to hit a barrier. That was what was occurring. It may not be you, but that is what is going on. I remember in one of my very first steeplechases a girl forgot to jump and ran straight into the barrier. You just constantly have to be aware and focused and attentive to your surroundings. In that Worlds race in particular it tested my ability to react in the right ways to these weird things that were going on. I draw on a lot of my gymnastics experience to be able to handle that well. In gymnastics you are seeking perfection, but the reality is there are going to be things that are off. It depends on how you handle those little wobbles or mishaps that are going to determine the routine. If you fall off the balance beam, you can’t lose it and mess up the rest of the routine because of one mistake. You have to be able to refocus and finish it up. I think that’s kind of my approach with the steeplechase. Yes, I’m trying to be technically as perfect as I can, but there are also things out of my control as far as the field when we are going over some of these barriers. It’s all about maintaining your composure.
GCR: On top of all of those things that can happen, this was a fast pace. Instead of running 3:06s for the first two kilometers, you were running 3:01s and 3:02s. You went through 1,000 meters and then 2,000 meters closer to 9:05 pace than your 9:19 PR. Were you pretty cognizant of being on that 9:05 pace and what did you do to reduce thinking about time and to focus on racing those around you?
AA I was really able to stay engaged and focused on just staying with the pace for about the first 2k. I don’t remember processing how fast we were running until about the 2k point. I did see the clock and at first I had an, ‘Oh my gosh, what have you done?’ moment. I looked up and saw 6:03 and at first thought, ‘Oh no,’ but then I thought that I had told myself I could run sub-9:10. I knew I could run 75s from that point and break 9:10. So it kind of was very exciting after that. Aside from the time and the actual clock, I could sense that we were running very fast.
GCR: Did you have any moments where you almost backed off and slowed down to run a bit more conservatively?
AA Somewhere between a mile and 800 meters to go I was kind of yo-yoing a little bit from the pace. I had to make a decision that I was going to stay on it or I was going to fall off because I was yo-yoing so much. At that moment I decided to focus until 800 meters to go and to stay with them no matter what. And then I was going to have a new game plan with 800 meters to go. In my mind I knew that if I could get to 800 meters to go, then I had to really focus hard for 400 meters. The last 400 meters you always end up with some sort of gear shift because it’s go time. So I really focused on breaking the race down into small parts before the race started. Then during the race I was breaking it down into even smaller parts so that they seemed much more approachable than thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, I have a mile left.’ It was already hard to I just had to think about the next 600 meters which was kind of easier to swallow.
GCR: When I’ve coached high school kids who were racing 1,600 meters we really focused on running a lap at a time for three laps and then breaking down the last lap into running the curve, running the back stretch, running the curve and then the homestretch. It is amazing how much better runners can do with that plan. It sounds like you use that kind of approach and that it really works. How about on the last lap where, as you mentioned, you got on the back stretch with the lead group and then made a strong move on the outside? Were you just thinking it was go time or you were going or the win or you were just going to do your best?
AA Going into the race, Jerry had told me, ‘Put yourself in the race. You never know – you might sense something special.’ When we got into the last lap, and at that point I was in fifth place, when we were coming into 300 meters to go I realized that this is what he was talking about. I knew I needed to go for this. It was very instinctual. I knew I didn’t have the best mile speed of the group, but I’m really strong from far out and I can hold the pace. I also knew that the more barriers that were left, the better. And so I knew I needed to just start pushing then and to try to break people earlier rather than later and not leave it until the last 100 meters or the last barrier. It was very instinctual. My college coach, Coach Butler, always said that if I was in a race with 400 meters to go there is no telling what can happen. I have to go with 400 meters to go because I am going to be strong over the last lap and shouldn’t leave it until the very end. It makes sense to run strong on the back stretch and then shift the focus into having a good water jump and then you’re in your last 100 meters.
GCR: Emma Coburn, Hyvin Kiyeng Jepkemoi and you were together when you approached the final water jump and afterward Emma had the lead with you in second. How strong and confident were you as you hit the home stretch with a hundred meters to go and you went into that last 18 second sprint?
AA I had no idea what would happen when we turned into that last one hundred meters. I knew I was in second place and I knew that Emma was really kicking it in. I was trying to keep my eyes on Emma’s back as long as I could and really focus on that last barrier. We’ve seen many times before that last barrier can make or break someone’s race. I knew I really had to focus on executing that last barrier. Once I got over that barrier and I looked up at the video board that’s whenever it hit me that we had dropped Kipkoech. That last fifty meters was the most emotional fifty meters of my life. It was starting to set in that I was going to win a medal, but I also had to refocus because I had Jekemoi a half step behind me. I couldn’t really celebrate then because I wanted a Silver Medal. And I wanted to challenge Emma as much as I could. I knew that was only going to challenge Emma more if we stayed on her. With ten meters to go I was completely overwhelmed with emotions knowing Emma had won and I was going to have a medal. I didn’t even know how fast we had run and then I saw the clock.
GCR: Nine minutes earlier you were on the starting line and maybe, if you had a great race, you were going to be fifth or sixth. How exciting was it when you crossed the finish line and knew you had earned the Silver Medal that was a dream, but had been unlikely a short nine minutes beforehand?
AA It was absolutely surreal. Kind of going in I felt that if I could crack the top five or six it was going to be a really good day. Had I run 9:03 and been fifth or sixth place I still would have been real happy with that. The most important thing from that race was me giving myself the best chance to be successful and to see what I could do. I think it was really important moving forward in my professional career, because we train so hard and we train enough, that me giving myself a chance isn’t being naïve or racing stupid like I used to in high school. I used to race very dumb in high school the first two minutes. This really allows us to show the work we’ve put in. It was a very cool moment.
GCR: The aftermath was exciting for me as a viewer watching on television. What was that next ten minutes or so like emotionally as you celebrated with Emma Coburn, you’re hugging, you’re crying, you have an American flag, took a victory lap, heard the cheers of the crowd and the realization of what you had done was immediate?
AA It’s up there as one of the best moments of my life for sure. It was one of those moments where I honestly felt like I needed someone pinching me. I felt like I was actually dreaming. It was funny as I was almost loopy. Emma will tell you the same thing. She’s won a medal before so she was a little more composed than me. I was like a little kid that needed to be corralled. I was just like in a dream world. It’s like I said before the transition was a little harder than I expected just because the reality of moving up to the next level is always going to be hard. When you’ve been one of the best at the level you were at I think sometimes you get this misconception that it’s going to be easy. You do have to take a step back and have a lot of respect for those who have been at that level for a long time. They’ve put a lot of hard work in and they’re really, really good. I had that feeling that all of this was worth it and it had me very excited to keep going and to keep using what I’ve learned. Every race, no matter how amazing a race is, you can learn from it. I pulled away a lot from that race.
GCR: I’ve interviewed Emma Coburn twice – after she won the Olympic Bronze Medal in Rio and after she won the World Championships Gold Medal this year – and she said she was very emotional last year on the podium even thought she was hearing the anthem of a different country. How was it to hear the Star Spangled Banner when you were on the podium?
AA It was just the most amazing moment. It made it just that much more special to be up there with Emma and to hear our National Anthem playing. I dreamed of being on the podium with the National Anthem playing since I was about seven years old. Growing up with gymnastics, that is all I ever thought about was representing the United States and winning a medal. Whenever that dream sort of seemed to end because I knew I wasn’t going to be an elite gymnast it was hard to know that at a really young age. But now I’ve had these opportunities to represent my country at different points. I remember being at the World Junior Championships in 2012 and watching Ajee Wilson win the 800 meters and seeing her medal ceremony and being very emotional watching the American flag come down and hearing the National Anthem playing. I thought I would love to have that someday. It was just such an amazing thing and more so being able to share it with Emma.
GCR: How nice was it to have your parents, your husband and other family members there to share in your World Championships experience since that isn’t always the case?
AA It was so special that they were there and I was so happy that I was able to find them on the victory lap. I ran the race but they are such an important factor in my life. They deserve a medal too because they sacrificed a lot. My parents sacrificed so much when I was growing up – running me from practice to practice. My sister is the same as she is such a big part of my life and so supportive of my running. Griffin, my husband, is such a huge part of who I am today and why I’ve been able to become the runner I am. I’m so happy that they were able to share that moment with me. It would have been very hard if they weren’t there and wouldn’t have felt the same. To be able to find them and hug them and celebrate together was just so perfect.
GCR: Running is a sport of highs and lows and, after the elation of that Gold Medal, how hard was it to sustain that mental, emotional and physical peak for European racing and the Fifth Avenue Mile?
AA I definitely struggled with it. Looking back at my college running, the first year that I did NCAAs and USAs I struggled with it too. Learning how to handle the emotional highs and then refocusing is really hard. I struggled with that Birmingham 3k. Jerry said it’s hard to come off of that much of a high and turn around that quick and try to put a race together. Then I turned around and did pacing in Berlin and that turned out well as I was able to help some girls that didn’t have the Worlds that they had dreamed of having. I was happy to help. There wasn’t much pressure because I wasn’t racing and I was just pacing. Next the Fifth Avenue Mile was a new position for me as that was one of the first races I went into where I was one of the featured athletes. I had to do the press conference and that was a little bit more overwhelming. It was neat because I was able to interact more with the fans. It’s a cool side of the sport and something I still have to learn to handle. Moving forward I think I will learn how to handle it better. It was definitely a new position trying to maintain the peak and trying to remember that you don’t have to light the world on fire every time you race and feel like you have to play defense. That’s how I’ve been trying to approach this fall leading into next year., just to focus on what I did to have that moment in the first place.
GCR: We spoke a bit about peaking and maintaining a peak. You have made U.S. national teams and are getting familiar with what is needed to peak twice for the U.S. Championships and then five to nine weeks later at Worlds or the Olympics. What do you do to ensure a successful ‘double peak,’ that some athletes find difficult to execute?
AA One of the things that I did in college a lot and I’ve done while coached by Jerry is that we are willing to sacrifice some of those early season races to really put in a strong base through the spring so that USAs may be our first big, key race of the year. Some people were noticing that we didn’t race well early in the year and were asking if that was Jerry’s philosophy and if we believed in that. Sacrificing some of the May races to be ready for the big races is something you have to believe in because there is something to be said for running faster early as well as then you are more confident for the U.S. Championships. We definitely have full trust in Jerry, and then some, that he is going to have us ready for the big moments. What we keep our eyes on are the two big championships in the year. Early this year we went to Doha and it didn’t go well and I also had food poisoning, but Colleen Quigley and I turned around and we both ran well at the end of the year. For us, with the way we approach the season, we buy into it and it works for us.
GCR: You have a training group which includes runners such as Colleen Quigley and Emily Infeld. How much has it helped not only to do tough training sessions with them, but to share thoughts on how to mentally and physically be your best?
AA It’s absolutely amazing to be a part of such a phenomenal group. On one hand someone is always going to be having a good day in the workout group. If you’re having a bad day someone is always willing to step up and say, ‘Follow me- we’ve got this.’ Everyone has different strengths so we’re able to use those strengths throughout workouts and in races to help one another out. All summer it was so neat to watch Evan Jager, day in and day out. He is the epitome of someone who does everything right, like nutrition and taking care of himself and getting enough sleep. It was neat to see him winning a medal and we learned from him how as an athlete we can do things better. It was great to see that first-hand and he is an awesome teammate. He was the lone boy training with us four girls but he was a trooper and wasn’t afraid to step up and fill a leadership role. He helped us out if we were having a bad day and helped when we had questions. He was very quick to help us. Everyone serves such a great role. The four girls – Emily, Colleen, Shelby and me – we are very close and have a lot of fun on the trips.
GCR: How much does it help you four younger members of the team to lean on your experienced marathon teammates?
AA Amy Cragg and Shalane Flanagan are kind of like our team moms. They have so much experience and aren’t afraid to share with us. Shalane is up at the top and she isn’t afraid to bring us up with her. She teaches us and she was kind of whispering in my ear all summer, ‘Hey, don’t be afraid to go for a big goal this year. Don’t be afraid to put yourself in it and give yourself a chance.’ To have somebody who has had that much success believe in me and offer those insights and that wisdom was really awesome.
GCR: Let’s talk about training a bit. First, what is your typical building phase weekly mileage and how does this compare to high school and college?
AA I just hit 71 miles this week. That is my highest under Jerry’s coaching. Last year I hit the upper 60s to 70 miles in a week through the fall, winter and early spring. Then in the late spring I dropped into the mid-60s. That’s actually a little bit lower than when I was doing my fifth year of college. We run the ‘Jerry Mile’ system. We made the decision last fall whenever I was transitioning into the group that because of the intensity and volume in the workouts we didn’t want to change my mileage. We opted to keep it the same. My goal this year is to get my mileage into the mid-70s per week. I think there’s a lot of room for growth in my mileage and I’m excited about that.
GCR: What are some of your favorite workouts for stamina, speed endurance or top end speed?
AA The speed side of training is actually something that is very new for me. In high school and college we did not do a lot of speed training. I didn’t run a lot in high school so when I got to my college coach he realized we didn’t have time to hit everything hard so we picked a few things to get good at. When I came to Coach Butler I had run one cross country season on fifteen miles a week so we had to start at a very low amount of miles. When I got to Jerry I had finally figured out a few things really well, but speed was one of the things we had left off of the table. I really like a lot of continuous speed. We will do 200 meters with a 100 meter jog and that is more in my wheel house because it’s quick with short recovery and isn’t all out speed. I enjoy those. But I have found that all out speed sessions are helping me a lot to be confident in my closing speed. I have some fantastic training partners as far as speed goes. Shelby and Colleen are so quick. It’s fun to be able to try and just hang on. Or they’ll give me a little of a head start and I’ll try to hold them off. Workouts like that are fun. I’ve surprisingly enjoyed that side of it because I’ve always felt that I wasn’t a miler and I wasn’t good at that event. But there is definitely some need to be able to have that skill. It may not be my strongest point, but I need to work on that skill.
GCR: How important in your training program is overall body conditioning, to keep well-rounded fitness, reduce your susceptibility to injuries and because of the increased demands of the steeplechase compared to racing in a flat event without barriers and water jumps?
AA We do core workouts three times a week. Pascal writes our program and I love it. The plan is focused on exercises that pertain to particular running motions and activation of muscles. I’m personally not a huge weightlifter. Having grown up doing gymnastics, weightlifting is not a big part of gymnastics. Pascal includes a lot of body weight exercises. So I love what we do as it’s a lot of what I grew up doing. Once track season comes around I’ll do two to three hurdle sessions a week, working on stretching and form. We break it down into not just hurdling, but the smaller parts – the lead leg, the trail leg. I always felt like I was a strong hurdler in college, but my hurdling improved this year because of the amount of time I was able to put into training for the steeplechase. Also, Pascal has such a wonderful eye for small details. Everyone jokes that I really became a steeplechaser this year and not a gymnast who was steeplechasing. That was kind of fun.
GCR: I’d like to turn the clock back to your childhood where you were active in many sports. In what sports did you compete from elementary school up through high school and do you feel that this helped your overall fitness and prevented childhood burnout that kids often experience when they focus on only one sport?
AA My parents encouraged me to try everything when I was growing up. Basically until I went to high school at different points I had done volleyball, softball, track, soccer, basketball and gymnastics. I was also in the band and did art. My parents were very big on being well-rounded so I could find what I wanted to do. I discovered my running ability pretty early on in my childhood. I broke six minutes for the mile when I was nine or ten years old. I was young and at the time I was really into gymnastics and soccer. My parents allowed me to make that decision that was what I was going to pursue. It allowed me to become an overall good athlete. That level of autonomy let me fall in love with running when I was ready to fall in love with running. I decided to run because I wanted to run which was very important. I think I was able to stay so healthy in college because of all of the different sports I was able to do throughout my childhood. I did gymnastics, soccer and ran in high school and was able to develop different muscle groups. Then I felt ready to focus on one sport when I was going away to college instead of always focusing on one and feeling like it was the next step. The idea of zoning in on one sport at that time was very exciting.
GCR: How did you decide to start competitive running in high school, what were some highlights and what impact did your coach have on your early development in the sports of cross country and track and field?
AA I was really fortunate that the high school soccer coaches and track coaches were willing to let me do both. I did practice with the soccer team and had a track uniform. There wasn’t a lot of track practice going on for me but I was out there still racing. I only ran the 800 meters, four by 800 meter relay and I triple jumped.
GCR: I thought I saw where you had triple jumped around thirty-four feet in high school.
AA Yes, that was part of how the coach got me to commit to track as he was going to let me keep triple jumping, which I loved. Now I realize there is no way that would have worked as I couldn’t be a triple jumper and 5k runner as they are opposite as far as training goes. But I just had really wonderful high school coaches in soccer, track and gymnastics who were understanding as far as my wanting to compete in multiple sports. After my junior year of high school I decided that, since I had had some injuries, that gymnastics wasn’t my future anymore. So I cut back to only three days a week in the gym. I really wanted to pursue getting a soccer scholarship. I had to get on good shape for soccer so I decided to go out for the cross country team.
GCR: Will you talk about your State cross country meet and how it propelled you toward becoming a runner?
AA We weren’t the most talented team, but our coach taught us the importance of team that cross country season. We qualified for State and were the first team from my school to qualify for State in the large school class for cross country. When we ran every day we ran for each other. Pretty quickly I started to fall in love with running and I started thinking this was something I could see myself doing. I had a big goal of finishing All-State. I was in eighth place at the three mile mark of the 5k course and the Missouri State course finishes uphill. I collapsed at that point and, by the time I got up and finished, I fell from eighth place to 54th place. That was really devastating. I never made it to the State track meet. I ended up finishing my high school athletics career with only one State appearance and zero All-State finishes. But that moment was when I decided I wanted to run in college because I got so close to something. I wanted to see what I could do and I felt there was something left. As heartbreaking as it was, I think it happened for a reason and that is part of why I am where I am today because I had a new determination when it came to running.
GCR: You were very green in the sport of distance running compared to most college freshmen. What did Coach James Butler do at the University of Missouri-Kansas City that led to your rapid improvement?
AA I think I was very raw when I went to college. I had run an 18:12 for 5k in high school which is pretty decent off of one season, but I didn’t really know what I was doing. I kind of planned to only go to undergraduate classes for three years, to graduate early and then go to medical school. I was a very competitive person, but wasn’t super bought into the running yet because I didn’t know what to expect. I was only running 30 to 35 miles a week as a freshman and my first day of practice I ended up accidentally running eleven miles. I didn’t know how to tell the girls that I shouldn’t have been running seven miles for the first run and then, when Coach Butler said it would be a good day to double, I didn’t know that didn’t mean me. I was just so lost. He was very quick to realize that and, instead of pushing the limits early on, he was very patient. He really helped me to learn the sport and to become a student of the sport. That was something I had done with gymnastics but hadn’t realized it may be necessary in another sport. He taught me how to understand running and that I should be learning what is good in running and what it took to get to NCAA Regionals.
GCR: How exciting was it to make your first USA team and how did that propel you in your running career?
AA I think the big shifting point was at the end of my freshman year when I qualified for the World Junior team. Receiving that suitcase filled with USA gear and having a childhood dream of mine come true in sport really lit a fire. It was so cool that I wanted to keep doing this. At that point Coach Butler told me I had earned the right to have an Olympic Dream. He said, ‘I don’t know what that means. It may mean you go to the Olympic Trials in 2016. We are going to do everything we can to get you on the starting line of the Olympic Trials.’ It was pretty crazy because he sat me down and had that conversation with me on July 9, 2012 and I qualified for the Olympics on July 7, 2016. It was almost four years to the day. That was kind of the real start of our journey as athlete and coach and then it was about to end four years later. I owe him a lot. It’s such a crazy thing that I just fell into his hands. He didn’t recruit me to UMKC and I didn’t meet him until the first day of practice because he was a new coach. It was just so meant to be.
GCR: Let’s talk about some of your college highlights. During your sophomore year you won four Summit League titles – the 3,000 and 5,000 meters indoors and steeplechase and 5,000 meters outdoors. Was it exciting to win these conference crowns and did that jump start your success?
AA Definitely. I still remember the first time I scored a Conference point and that was exciting. To be able to start with small successes fueled the fire. When I won Conference, then I wanted to make NCAA Regionals. Then I wanted to get to NCAAs. Each part was important into the whole story. I definitely appreciated each part. I think back to my last meet with UMKC with the whole team and we finally won a team championship at Conference. That was one of my proudest moments at UMKC, being able to win a team title at Conference.
GCR: That same year you placed sixth at NCAAs in the steeplechase at 9:55.02. How was it mentally to go in two short years from collapsing at your high school State cross country meet to becoming an All-American?
AA It was so surreal. I was so happy you would have thought I just won my Silver Medal. It was such a neat moment. I remember Coach Butler telling me, ‘if you never get to this point again, you will always be able to say you’re an All-American.’ That was so cool to have that under my belt. I was feeling – Wow! It was crazy. It was such a testament to him as a coach as he just really did things right. He got me so excited about running. That was also when Colleen Quigley and I first connected at that meet.
GCR: Over the next two seasons you won six more conference titles, now in the WAC, and capped off 2015 with a second place at NCAAs in the steeplechase with a time of 9:31.36, two seconds behind Colleen Quigley and two seconds in front of Leah O’Connor. How competitive and memorable was that race with Colleen and Leah?
AA That was so competitive and that year was probably my favorite year competing in the steeplechase in the NCAA because every time I was going to set foot on the track I knew it was going to be a great race. It is very rare that you have three athletes in the NCAA breaking 9:30 or coming so close to breaking 9:30 at the same time in the steeple. I think we’ll see it more often at the steeple is improving, but that was basically unheard of. It was so neat to be a part of that and I have so much respect for those girls. Also, at that time I was struggling with whether or not to come back for my fifth year. I was contemplating going and running professionally. When I got second place it was one of the most proud moments of my career. I had the highest finish at NCAAs ever for UMKC and our school was finally starting to get some respect. But it was also the moment of, ‘I’m coming back.’ The first thing when I saw my coach was that I was sort of teary-eyed because we all want to win, but I told him, ‘The record is mine next year.’
GCR: You were right and in your final year of collegiate competition on the track you won the NCAA steeplechase by 17 seconds in a meet record and collegiate record of 9:24.41. How was it to know you were faster collegiately than Emma Coburn and Jenny Simpson and had you set out to break the records?
AA They set the bar very high for those of us coming up behind them and it was so much fun to be chasing them. Also, it had me really excited because I knew at that point I was going professional. I was pretty confident that I was going to be on the Bowerman Track Club. I was very excited about my potential and my future. Breaking that record a few weeks before the Olympic Trials was a pivotal moment in my believing I could actually make that Olympic team.
GCR: How was that quick transition from collegiate champion to focusing on making the top three at the Olympic Trials and qualifying for the Olympics?
AA It is hard coming out of college to make those teams because oftentimes the competition level isn’t quite the same compared to when you go against the best women in the country. It’s hard when you aren’t the one leading the race, so it gave me a lot of confidence to really give myself a chance to make the Olympic team. Making the Olympic team was the perfect springboard to starting my professional career.
GCR: You mentioned that Coach Butler didn’t know if that Olympic moment would be you getting to the Olympic Trials or making it to the Olympics. How exciting was it to cross that finish line at the Olympic Trials and to make the USA team, especially since you had had that childhood dream as a gymnast to make it to the Olympics?
AA It was the coolest moment. I had wanted to go to the Olympics since I was seven years old when I remember watching the 2000 Olympics. I remember seeing Coach Butler when I was on the victory lap and he was teary-eyed. He said, ‘You did it!’ It was such a special moment that there wasn’t much exchange of words, but just this hug that said, ‘Who would have thought this?’ Again, it was such a testament to him and to the people with whom you surround yourself. I’ve just been really fortunate to have a lot of positive people in my corner – Coach Butler, my husband Griffin, my family and different teammates I’ve had throughout the years.
GCR: That last year leading up to the Olympic Trials you were in graduate school at the University of New Mexico with a year of athletic eligibility. How positive was this change to new teammates with a higher talent level?
AA I owe those teammates of mine in the 2015 to 2016 year, the women at the University of New Mexico, so much. Here I was coming in a transfer and it could have gone really well or really badly. They accepted me as one of their own so fast. I really learned what it meant to work together as a cross country team, not like my high school team, but a team of very talented girls. We could have four girls that would be number one runners on most teams who worked together.
GCR: You mentioned how exciting it was when your high school cross country team made it to State in the large school classification, how exciting was it when you and some of those young women like Alice Wright, Rhona Auckland, Calli Thackery and Molly Renfer won the NCAA team championship, 80 points ahead of Colorado? How exciting was it to share the victory with your team and to know you can celebrate championship anniversaries with them in the future?
AA That moment is the highlight of my NCAA career without a doubt. When everyone found out I was transferring to New Mexico, they said that they needed me. No, I needed them. They taught me so much about the sport. I didn’t know what a National Championship team looked like, but I never dreamed it would have looked like us. We were serious, but we ran for each other. The amount of support we had for each other and the way we shared with each other was an amazing moment. Their support and having them as teammates was so crucial for me doing what I did in the track season. It also changed my view as to what I was looking for in a professional running group as well. Whenever I think of a perfect college team, that’s exactly what I go to and I was lucky to have been a part of that. We enjoyed every step of the way.
GCR: It had to be part of a perfect day because I also watched the post-race video with the additional excitement of your boyfriend, Griffin Humphries, getting down on one knee and proposing to you and you accepting. Did you have any idea this would happen that day and, with the team win and your engagement, it must be pretty hard even for your World Championships Silver Medal to top that as one of the best days of your life?
AA I think so. I had no idea that was going to happen. He totally caught me off guard. I just remember we had just finished taking pictures with the team trophy, it was such a wonderful day and everyone was happy. I had just set the trophy down and all of these people were walking toward me. I was thinking, ‘What is going on?’ And then Griffin was down on one knee and it was like, ‘Oh my gosh!’ The day couldn’t get any better. He was so cute saying, ‘I don’t want to take away from your win. The girls were saying things like, ‘We would have been so mad if you didn’t propose here.’ They wanted it to be a part of the day. It just shows you how important these girls are to me. We are all still very close. What is really neat about having so many teammates from throughout the world is that I get to see so many of them as I’m travelling. Several of them were at Worlds. I owe a lot to that team. They brought out the best Courtney I could be because they were such great people and such great teammates.
GCR: At the USA Championships this year, Emma Coburn, Colleen Quigley and you were comfortably ahead late in the race to secure your spots on the team. Is USAs a sense of accomplishment when you make the team, or more a feeling of relief?
AA To a degree it is relief as I get more nervous for USAs and World Championships prelims because I work so hard to have that World Championships finals moment, but there are still steps along the way to endure. It is kind of a sense of relief. It was a race where Jerry felt I could be close to challenging Emma and he went back and forth on whether I should really go for it or aim to secure my spot on the team. And I felt myself kind of having that conflicted approach. This next year will kind of be fun with it being an off-year to try to be a bit riskier. It is so neat to step on the line and to have that level of competition. I talked to Emma and she is so excited for wonderful performances, no matter who it is. It’s neat that our goal out there is to be the best version of ourselves and I think that’s going to be really important moving forward to elevate all of the women in the U.S. by trying to be the best version of ourselves on race day.
GCR: The 2018 racing season will be the once-every-four-years without an Olympics or World Championships. Will you be focused mainly on breaking nine minutes in the steeplechase and racing strong in Diamond League races, or will you also focus perhaps on cross country and racing some at 1,500 meters or 5,000 meters?
AA We’ve talked about running the U.S. Cross Country Championships this February. I would love to as kind of prep for 2019. I think it would be really fun to try to make the World Championships Cross Country team for 2019. That’s been on my radar but we haven’t finalized early season races as it’s too soon. I’d love to tackle a 5k – we’ve discussed that as well. I think that’s kind of my other event. I’d also love to run a 10k one day, but I don’t know if I’m quite ready for it yet. I’m excited to get a good 5k in next year, but also excited to focus on the steeple and take some really good chances at the nine minute barrier. At the big Diamond League races I want to just practice racing with the top women more. I want to make the Diamond League final. It was kind of hard to watch it this year knowing that I had beaten a lot of the women who were in the final. That’s part of it because I didn’t have the points and wasn’t able to be there.
GCR: Now that you have won your first World Championships Medal, how focused are you on challenging for Diamond League wins because, if you want to compete for the Gold Medal at the 2019 World Championships and at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, you’ve got to be at the top of your game especially since Emma Coburn and the many top runners from Kenya, Ethiopia and Bahrain will all be back?
AA Exactly. It’s going to be very important the next year and the next two years going into Tokyo that I really learn how to handle different racing tactics. In London the race played out the way I like to race. I don’t want to speak for Emma, but I think in the U.S. we prefer that slow wind down. In the Diamond League final the plan of attack was what the Kenyans and Ruth Jebet will typically go for and that’s a very fast middle kilometer where they just drop the rest of the field. She did that in the Rio Olympics and was very successful so I’m excited to learn how to handle that and be better prepared. I can’t go into a race and think that there is only one way for the race to play out for me to be successful. I have to take what’s given and maybe that means one day at some point I may have to take the lead. I’m excited for more opportunities in international competition.
GCR: We’ve talked about several of your races, but out of your many NCAA races, U.S. Championship races and international competitions, are there a few we haven’t discussed that really stand out for you because you had a breakthrough with a faster than expected time, higher than anticipated place or you pushed real strong to beat a tough competitor?
AA One of the races where I used to go back for a while and kind of re-watch the video that was one of the moments where I took a big risk was at the Peyton Jordan meet in 2015. Going into that outdoor track season I had had a very successful cross country and indoor season and I was excited about what I was going to do in the steeple. I had redshirted the previous outdoor season so I felt like I was really going to have a good year. But my first two races of that season were very mediocre. I had already debuted that year in the steeple and ran 9:49, which was six seconds off of my PR. So I was starting to get a little bit frustrated. I knew I was so much better than what I had been running. Going into Peyton Jordan I told myself that I had already qualified for NCAA Regionals and already qualified for USAs so I shouldn’t worry about time and should just be competitive. With 800 meters to go I found myself with the lead group and I all of a sudden made a move down the back stretch which was very much like at Worlds this year where I just had this instinct to go. I ended up winning the race and running around 9:32. It was a big breakthrough and put me in the conversation for accomplishing some of the goals I had set for myself. It was a good moment because there was some struggle followed by trust that led to a big moment. I think it is important to trust the process because you never know when you are going to have setbacks or those big moments. That thinking makes it easier when challenges come about.
GCR: When you see what some of these other women are doing in the running community such as Emma Coburn with her 5k in Crested Butte, Colorado and Jenny Simpson with her big role with children at the New York Road Runners Club, how do you view your ever-increasing role as an ambassador for encouraging children to exercise and as a role model for young women to strive toward their potential?
AA It’s a big goal of mine to kind of follow in their footsteps, but in my own way. This coming Saturday I’m hosting a ‘Run, Jump, Throw’ event which is a program USATF puts on throughout the year. They allow us to use their curriculum and I’m hosting one in my hometown which is very important to me. My hometown is very much the reason I am who I am today. The support I received there before I really achieved what I have is important. I can go back there and be ‘Courtney the person’ and not necessarily ‘Courtney the Olympian’ which is fun. I want to give back to the kids. When I was in fifth grade I had the same teacher as Terin Humphrey who was an Olympic Gymnast. My teacher got me her autograph. It was written to me and meant so much to me. Now that I have had some success, I’ve decided that I want to give these moments to kids if I can. I’m really excited about my event on Saturday and want to continue with events like that. I’d like to have my own 5k one day like Emma had. She did such a phenomenal job with hers and I was able to be there for it. Wow! I was so impressed. I felt like I was taking notes on how to do an event. I think it is important to show kids that everyone has their own unique path to success. With social media these days people feel the need to do what others have done, and sometimes paths will be similar, but that doesn’t mean that has to be the path for each child. I like sharing my story to see if it may encourage somebody to pursue their dreams even though they may seem a little far-fetched at the time.
GCR: When you speak to youth and speak to groups, what do you tell them about the major lessons you have learned during your life – whether it’s athletically, academically, the discipline of athletics, balancing the many components of life and any adversity you have faced that is summed up as the ‘Courtney Frerichs Philosophy’ of being your best?
AA I talk about having goals and that you can’t be afraid to set big goals, but that there should also be little goals along the way. I also say that goals are written in pencil and it’s okay if they are changing. I always had my goal to be an Olympic gymnast. But that didn’t happen and it changed and it evolved. There is a path to success and it isn’t straight. There are going to be turns, but there are always lessons to be learned along the way. You have to learn to appreciate every small accomplishment. A lot of times I am in dire need of taking my own advice. I talk about trusting the process, but I’ll be frustrated when something hasn’t happened because I’ve checked off all of the things along the way to get it done. It’s good to get up there and talk to kids because it reminds me to take my own advice. So, you should have goals and know their importance is good as well as realize that they may change along the way. It is good to dream because, if you don’t give yourself the chance, you never know what can happen.
  Inside Stuff
Hobbies/Interests I’m a big coffee drinker so I go to a lot of different coffee shops which is fun in Portland. It’s a really big thing here. I am also a self-proclaimed nerd. I have been going back and I’ve been reading a text book. I also just purchased an anatomy coloring book. When I’m done running I still aspire to go back to school, whether it’s medical school or something else in the health field. I enjoy staying on top of the health area
Nicknames My dad is the only one who gave me nicknames when I was growing up. When I was very little it was ‘Sippy Cup,’ then it was ‘Court Monster.’ The most recent is one he gave me in junior high school which is ‘C-Dog’ and he still calls me that
Favorite movies ‘Bridesmaids’ is a good one. My two good friends from UNM and I always quote ‘Bridesmaids’
Favorite TV shows I like watching ‘Chops’ now. The Food Network is about the only TV that I watch. I just got into watching Netflix about a year ago and I enjoy ‘Parks and Recreation.’ I was sad when it ended because I enjoyed my ‘Parks and Rec’ time during the day
Favorite music I like ‘EDM’ which is Electronic Dance Music. I still judge music based on whether or not it would make a good gymnastics floor routine so I like upbeat songs. At UNM when it was time for workouts they would play ‘EDM’ and I liked that during our workouts
Favorite books I’m much more into non-fiction. My favorite book growing up was an autobiography by an author, Peg Kehret, called ‘Small Steps: The Year I Got Polio.’ I’m currently reading a text book about female athletes. It’s written in a clinical sense and I kind of enjoy learning that type of material. I’m also reading ‘You are a Badass,’ which was given to me by my teammates. Emily Infeld had recommended a chapter to me right before the Worlds final about commitment and I think it is very applicable to running. It’s about going after goals you want in life
First car It was a 2003 silver Honda Civic
Current car It’s a blue Ford Escape. My favorite color is blue so it’s very fitting for me
First Jobs I got a job when I was sixteen working at Sonic. I hated it so then I got a job at a clothing store at the mall. I worked throughout my undergraduate days at a running store and it was fun to bring the joy of running to people
Family My parents are Cathy and Scott. My mom is a teacher at my high school. I loved having her there. It was a lot of fun. I could keep all of my stuff in her room. She’s great. My parents deserve the biggest award in the world for never saying ‘no’ and letting me try things that I wanted to do. That was very important in my development of who I am and why I’ve been able to become the athlete I am. I have one sister named Lindsey and she’s twenty years old. She plays soccer for Evangel University. She’s great and we’re really close. I’m excited to be going home to see her. It’s nice to see her being a student-athlete like I was. I wanted that for her so badly and I was so excited when she made the decision to become a student-athlete in college. My husband, Griffin, is a runner and is a volunteer coach at Portland State. He is phenomenal with his knowledge of running. Griffin is recruiting for Portland State and totally enjoying that. He’s training for the California International Marathon and has been putting in 120 miles of running a week. It’s neat to see his dedication because he runs for the pure joy of running at this point. That helps me to be the best athlete I can be because I’m privileged to be paid to run. Watching somebody work as hard as he does day in and day out makes me want to keep my game up too
Pets I’ve always had cats and my parents have always had cats. Griffin and I have a house cat that we got during college and she’s five years old now. Her name is ‘Roo’ after our mascot at UMKC. She’s very sassy. I like coming home to a pet since I spend a lot of time at home. Griffin wants to get a dog, but we’re not home enough right now
Favorite breakfast I love so many different breakfasts. I love French toast and breakfast burritos, especially if I’m in Albuquerque where there are the best breakfast burritos
Favorite meal I love Italian food. Spaghetti and meatballs is one of my go-to foods. I have it once a week and it’s often what I eat before races. Pasta is always good
Favorite beverages Coffee, for sure. Lattes. I usually have coffee twice a day
First running memory The mile in first or second grade for the physical fitness test. I remember I ran the fastest time for all of the girls in the school. The P.E. coach told my dad and he got really excited because my dad has always loved running. He moved around so much growing up that he didn’t have a lot of opportunities that he wanted as far as being on teams. That was when he got really excited that he might have a distance runner on his hands. After that he signed me up for this track team that summer and I was seven or eight years old. I ran in the Show Me State Games with our track team and did the four by 100 meter relay, the four by 400 meter relay and a bunch of different events. That was a fun group of girls to be with. I remember thinking that the 400 meters was just the longest thing in the world to run. I was spent for so long!
Running heroes Emma Coburn has been my idol for a long time. I remember the first time I raced her. Well, sort of raced her. It was at NCAA Regionals in 2013. That was the first time I broke ten minutes in the steeplechase and qualified for Nationals. I had this big smile after the race and she turned around and said, ‘Oh my gosh – you broke ten!’ She was so excited and I had never met her. It was really neat. I was so over the moon about the race and then Emma was talking to me. She was so kind and so nice that year. At Nationals she was talking to everybody and was so excited for other runners and how they did. It was neat because she had already run in the Olympics at that point and I had looked up to her for a long time. It is cool to accomplish some things alongside somebody that I’ve looked up to for a long time. She paved the way for us and has set a really high standard
Greatest running moment Definitely my Silver Medal. I feel privileged and lucky that I have a lot that I can consider to be really amazing moments. Three stick out and those are winning my Silver Medal, winning the national team title and then winning the national championship in a collegiate record. But the Silver Medal is the best
Worst running moment The cross country season after the first time I made All-American was pretty up and down for me. I started to expect success a little too much versus working for it. I was working hard, but I expected improvement. At our conference meet I kind of went in with the attitude that I was just going to win, and I ended up getting second. I never even put myself in the race and so I left that race feeling defeated. I had to mentally change my approach to training and racing after that. It all happens for a reason and you become a better runner from those moments
Childhood dreams To be an Olympic gymnast
Blonde moment I had a really blonde moment at practice a couple weeks ago. We do mile repeats on this turf field and it’s almost 600 meters around. Jerry was going through all of the marks and we were standing maybe fifty meters down. As a reference, if it was a 400 meter track it would be in the middle of one of the straights. He points over to where a 300 meter mark would be, which was about 150 meters away from where we were standing. Then he told us where the 800 meter mark and the kilometer were. I was standing there so confused. I couldn’t figure out how the different marks were as the distances seemed wrong. But if Jerry says that’s what it is then it must be. Then when we were nearing the start the girls lined up toward the other direction and I went, ‘Oh, that’s why the 400 meter mark is over there! We’re running the opposite direction.’ Jerry looks at me and says, ‘You’re telling me that you thought this 200 meters was 400 meters and the 400 meters was 200 meters?’ I told him that I trusted what he said. The look on his face was just saying, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ But I was saying, ‘Isn’t it good that I just trusted you?’ I picked up that something was wrong, but Jerry said so and it must be right. That was one of my blonde moments
Favorite places to travel Domestically, Albuquerque holds a very special place in my heart, so I love going back to Albuquerque. The sun, the mountains, the people – it’s a very special place. If people get a chance to visit for a while they just take it in and it’s awesome. I love going to different mountains, so any other mountain locations are favorites to visit. As to foreign places, I love London. And I loved London before the medal. I went to London in 2014 because my best friend was studying abroad and I left London thinking I’m going to move there one day. I just loved it so much. It was really neat that Worlds was there this year because it’s one of my favorites