Why Olympic silver medalist Courtney Frerichs felt she won even before starting race

·7 min read

The way she figured it standing beneath the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro five years ago, Courtney Frerichs had been four years ahead of schedule when she finished 11th in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Rio Games.

Then, like everyone else because of the pandemic, she was a year late to the Tokyo Olympics — a year in which she told The Star she had struggled to ride “the wave of grief” and cried over the looming “very real expiration date” of an elite athlete’s prime.

“It’s kind of like we got to the bell lap of this Olympic cycle (only to be told), ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, just kidding — you have another mile,’” the 28-year-old UMKC graduate and native of Nixa, Missouri, said last year.

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Then, as it happens, she actually almost ran out of time.

Training in Hawaii en route to Japan, she told reporters in Tokyo, she contracted a virus (specifics were unclear) and spent a few days so ill that she said she “honestly didn’t know if I was going to make it on the plane to get here.”

Which brings us to the steeplechase final on Wednesday in Tokyo, when Frerichs felt such gratitude just to be on the starting line that she would later say “I felt like I’d won the race before it even started.”

Then Frerichs, the American record-holder and 2017 world silver medalist, set out to actualize that feeling. She seized the lead with four laps to go and still was squeezing it at the actual bell.

“It’s really difficult to put yourself out there like that, and I definitely had some fear to overcome,” she told reporters after the race. “But I knew I’d walk away with no regrets if I really laid it all out there.”

Courtney Frerichs, of the United States, competes in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)
Courtney Frerichs, of the United States, competes in the women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase final at the 2020 Summer Olympics, Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, in Tokyo. (AP Photo/Petr David Josek)

No regrets, indeed: Because in one shining moment, she went from being ahead of herself five years ago to feeling behind so much of the last year and maybe too late in just the last few weeks to frontrunning to …

Right on time, in 9 minutes 4.79 seconds, becoming the first American woman to win silver in the event and just the second to reach the podium. In the final lap of the exacting, at-times chaotic race featuring 28 hurdles and seven water pits, she was overtaken by Uganda’s Peruth Chemutai (9:01.45) but fended off hard-charging Hyvin Kiyeng of Kenya (the bronze medalist in 9:05.39) and Mekides Abebe of Ethiopia.

Recalling her longtime dream to be an Olympian, Frerichs said, “Now to have a medal, it’s just more than I can ask for.”

In the process, Frerichs became perhaps the highest-profile character from Nixa since the fictitious David Webb, aka Jason Bourne of “The Bourne Identity.” A few years ago, Frerichs said with a laugh, she remembered a sign on a local pizza place touting, “Jason Bourne is always welcome here.”

Meanwhile, if this truth isn’t necessarily stranger than fiction, it was something no one could have seen coming when Frerichs graduated from Nixa High 10 years ago without ever so much as having qualified for a Missouri state track meet.

Now, in addition to the well-wishes she’d heard were posted around town, you can pretty well bet there will be signs in the works proclaiming Nixa the hometown of Courtney Frerichs, who now lives and trains in Oregon with the Bowerman Track Club but has long remained a source of pride back home.

The town of approximately 20,000 about 12 miles south of Springfield believes itself to be the only place on Earth thus-named, with that uniqueness apparently derived from the idea that as “nothing but a crossroads” the term “nix” best described the community. According to the town’s website, the “a” was appended to that as a nod to a prominent early blacksmith, Nichola A. Inman, and, presto, Nixa.

Nixa lately has stood at a crossroads of a different sort, engulfed in what has become the epicenter of the pandemic and embroiled in conflict on responding to it.

Wherever anyone stands in all that, though, safe to say this is a particularly welcome and unifying development there now. Especially because she’s just the vibrant, kind and thoughtful sort of person we could all be proud to have representing not just Nixa or UMKC but Team USA itself.

“Our entire community is so proud of all the hard work she put into reaching this goal and the great way she continues to represent Nixa to the world,” Nixa mayor Brian Steele said in an email to The Star.

Beyond her upbeat nature and athletic prowess, Frerichs had a 3.94 GPA while studying chemistry at UMKC and at New Mexico was honored as Mountain West woman of the year in 2016 while pursuing her master’s degree in community health education. She’s spoken in the past of pursuing a career in medicine.

For now, though, she’s best-known as an Olympic silver medalist, an achievement that had a foundation back home but was put on trajectory at UMKC … where she once playfully called herself “a pretty risky person to bring in” with fewer athletic plaudits than many.

When the coach who recruited her to UMKC, Clif Mitchell, left for Tulsa before her freshman year, she posed a potential dilemma for new coach James Butler. Or as Frerichs put it in 2016: “When he saw me on paper and didn’t know me as a person yet, he kind of questioned what (Mitchell’s) thought process was.”

But when he did get to know her, both in the sense of her background in gymnastics and soccer and her dedication, he saw something she didn’t even know she had in herself.

Not to mention an insane event in mind for her that she had perhaps had heard of once before he approached her about it.

Skepticism notwithstanding, after a few weeks of steeplechase Butler knew it was the right decision. That was in large measure because she had little fear “of running at those objects,” she said, because of her “air awareness,” flexibility and comfort with vaulting.

Only a year later, at the junior world championships in Spain in 2012, she was so close to reaching the finals that Butler pulled her aside to tell her she had “earned the right for an Olympic dream.” She embraced the notion.

Four years later at New Mexico, she won the NCAA title in 9:24.41, breaking a seven-year-old NCAA record by more than a second, and qualified for Rio. In the moment after that 11th-place finish there, she had what she called “a sense of peace” over the race.

But she also learned, four years ahead of time or not, that she had one more hurdle to overcome: her relative intolerance for risk. Only a year later, with that silver at the worlds in London, she got affirmation of the benefits of letting go.

“That’s where those breakthroughs come,” she said in a recent interview with The Star, by putting yourself in a position you’ve never been in before.”

Perhaps counterintuitively, though, with that came a different sort of struggle. Frerichs always had grappled with perfectionism; now the beast took fresh form in the struggle to improve or just replicate such a peak. At times, the self-generated pressure was overwhelming, she would tell Runner’s World.

That led to working with USOPC sports psychologist Sean McCann, who helped her realize some simple but vital truths: to avoid fixating on how others are performing and look to herself and what she can control. Be the best Courtney she can be, and let the results fall from that.

Some months later in Monaco, Frerichs ran the steeple in 9:00.85, an American record and then the sixth-fastest time in the history of the event. And while she was challenged anew by the pandemic, the continuing work with McCann helped her navigate that, too.

And after being ahead of schedule in 2016 and delayed a year now, after all the doubts and oddities and even that brutal fall in prelims, it sure seems she arrived exactly when she was supposed to on Wednesday.