LONDON — Admit it, sports fans. Yeah, you — the one waiting for football season (American or European) to start. The one who plays fantasy, wears jerseys and spouts trivia. You couldn’t care less about the women’s steeplechase.
But, right now, you should care. You’re missing something amazing.
You may not even know what a steeplechase is. Right now, to appreciate the improbable, entertaining madness of what happened Friday night at the World Championships, you need to know that the steeplechase is a race of 3,000 meters, on a track, featuring 28 barriers and seven water jumps. (Full disclosure: I had to check Wikipedia for that.)
You need to know that Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs had NO BUSINESS winning gold and silver. I never used all caps in a column before, even when Justin Gatlin beat Usain Bolt in the 100 a few days ago. But Americans beating Kenyans in this steeplechase was like Gatlin beating Bolt in the 100, with the added excitement of trips, what looked a tackle, and the front-runner having to double back as if she forgot her cell phone at home.
Even Coburn and Frerichs admitted they had no business medaling. On the final lap, “I was just waiting for three Kenyans to pass me,” Coburn said.
Speaking of hockey, there were some serious collisions in this race. That’s another reason to enjoy the steeplechase. Remember the barriers? They’re not called hurdles for a reason. Hurdles get knocked over. Barriers knock runners over. Barriers are thick, long and heavy. They may even be attached to the track. (Wikipedia didn’t say.)
The mayhem started when the frontrunner, Beatrice Chepkoech, who is of course Kenyan because she was the frontrunner, approached the first water jump. For some reason, she simply ran around it. Totally ignored the barrier and just kept it moving, like she hit a single and proceeded straight to second base.
Chepkoech’s trance was broken by the water splashing from the feet of runners to her left. She skidded to a halt, U-turned, ran 10 yards in the opposite direction as everyone else, then jumped over the barrier. This put her so far back of the lead, you might have thought she was American.
Incredibly, she caught up to the pack. Then came another barrier. Chepkoech stumbled on the far side and, while falling to the track, took down a few other runners with her.
After all that, Chepkoech still finished fourth, in 9:10.45. That’s just how Kenyans roll.
After they crossed the finish line, Coburn and Frerichs shared an exhilarated, exhausted embrace and traded incredulous profanities. “‘Holy guacamole’ is the PG version,” Coburn said. “Courtney just kept saying, ‘Am I dreaming? Am I dreaming?'”
No American had won a world title in steeplechase since 1952. No U.S. women had ever finished 1-2 in any world championship distance race. Track nerds — why isn’t there such a thing as a football nerd? — are calling this the most thrilling race of the 2017 World Championships, and one of the greatest moments in American distance running history.
You sports fans can just call it amazing. Like a football game where — nah, forget that. After a race like this, nobody cares about football.