Behind Courtney Frerichs’ Slightly Different Path In Running

Courtney Frerichs' first major running performance was a 5:32 mile. It's a mark that, in some states, would put a fair share of female athletes on the podium of their respective high school state championship meets.  

Courtney achieved that effort at 10 years old, and was in the fifth grade.

For many gifted young female runners, such a performance at that age would trigger increased expectations, training, and higher-level competition against athletes years older.

Not Frerichs. 

The American record holder in the steeplechase, who will line up in the event this weekend at the USA Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, never became distracted from the sports that were her primary focus throughout her adolescence: Gymnastics and soccer.

Frerichs, a graduate of Nixa High School in Missouri, never competed in a state track meet in high school and collapsed before the finish line of her state meet in cross country. Her high school track experience was limited to the 800m (2:24.94) and the triple jump (34-5.5) -- performances that were hardly harbingers of future success. 

But recent research into athletic development has opened the door to the possibility that the Missouri native may be less of an enigma and rather a good example for a new paradigm shift for athletes in youth and high school sports, particularly young female distance runners.  

The history of the sport is rife with examples of gifted, enthusiastic, middle-school girls posting spectacular times who find it challenging to surpass, or even equal, those performances later in high school and beyond.  

The average high school 1,600 meter PR of the 15 women who qualified for the 2016 US Olympic team in the 1,500, Steeplechase, 5,000, 10,000 and the marathon was 4:53. 

Good, sure. But it's still 20 seconds shy of Alexa Efraimson's high school national record of 4:33.29, and even further from Mary Cain's 4:28.25 mile indoors.

But out of that group of 15 women, there were only 14 times to average, because one of those Olympic qualifiers never even ran the 1,600 in high school.

Courtney Frerichs.

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At the Beginning, More Mary Lou Retton than Mary Cain

Frerichs' childhood idols weren't runners.  

She cherished the autograph of Olympic gymnastics silver medalist and fellow Missourian Terin Humphrey. A poster of Mia Hamm hung on her bedroom wall.

Frerichs started gymnastics at the age of 3 and continued for the next 15 years on floor exercises, balance beams, uneven bars, and vault. In high school, she was often in the gym 20 hours a week. 

She would come tantalizingly close to tasting top-level success in gymnastics, once missing qualifying for nationals by one-half of one-tenth of a point. It would prove to be just one more factor that would stoke the fire of the future world-class athlete. She became a two-time regional qualifier in gymnastics. Soccer was Frerichs's other love, and she became an all-district soccer player. 

But neither sport held much promise for potential college scholarships. 

The track coach, one of her teachers, had other ideas.

"Halfway through the track season, he called me up to his desk one day during class and told me that he had a track uniform set aside for me and that I was going to run the 4 x 400 relay," Frerichs recalled. "I didn't think I could do it because I had missed half of the practices."

Frerichs agreed to run. The coach let her. 

Years later, as she finally gave up gymnastics and soccer for a full season of cross country, it would lead to opportunity, and a chance to run at the collegiate level. 

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A Cross Country Conversion

The natural endurance Frerichs displayed as a 10-year-old showed itself in her only season of high school cross country.  Despite her limited training, she ran the 5K under 19-minutes four times, eventually posting a PR of 18:12. 

She placed third at conference and ninth at districts, and even managed to win a couple of smaller meets. Then came the state meet.

Frerichs' limited running background and ferocious competitive drive would lead her to push herself to exhaustion about 150 meters before the finish line. She was in 8th place with the finish line in sight, then collapsed.  She struggled to the finish, coming in 54th.

It was there, however, where she discovered that cross country is the ultimate team sport. 

"I fell in love with the team aspect," Frerichs said of that memory. "It really felt like a family. Because everyone is running the same event, it gives everyone a chance to bond in a way that was different than anything I had experienced in soccer or gymnastics. I loved it."

There was just one problem.

In order to become a collegiate athlete, Frerichs would first need someone to believe in her. 

College coaches weren't exactly beating down the door to recruit a girl with a 2:24 800 PR from her freshman year. 

And because she planned to attend medical school and wanted to attend a large university, those opportunities would be almost nonexistent.


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A Diamond in the Rough

The University of Missouri-Kansas City would be one of only two NCAA Division I offers that Frerichs received.

It was all she needed.

The 2:24 800 and 18:12 5K in cross country on such limited training were just enough for James Butler to decide to take a chance.  

The UMKC women's coach thought he saw potential, and it was just that. But he was willing to be patient because of his belief that the results would be worth the wait.

"I was only running 30 miles a week that first semester and even that felt like a lot," Frerichs said of the memory. "But I just didn't have the background, and I had to start somewhere."

Off a modest racing schedule, Frerichs ran a 22:56 for 6K and was 90th at the NCAA Midwest Regional. She improved that mark to 22:08 at the USA Cross Country Championships the same year. 

Indoors, Frerichs she lowered her time in the mile to 5:09, 10:02 for 3,000 meters and 17:33 for 5,000.  They were all modest marks. Butler remained patient. 

Outdoors, Frerichs continued steady improvement. 

More importantly, she was able to combine her power from gymnastics, her endurance from soccer, and apply it toward consistent training as she sought to figure out the steeplechase. 

As a freshman still learning the sport, she ran 10:34 at Mt. SAC, then established herself as someone to watch by finishing second at USA Track and Field U20 Championships in 10:35.

Then there was "the talk" Butler had with Frerichs her freshman year.  

He told her she'd done well, but that she could be great. But to do so, she had to go all-in.

That was all Frerichs needed to hear.

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Exploding on the National Scene and an Epiphany

The results were noticeable in her sophomore year. 

Following a redshirt cross country season, she slashed nearly a minute from her 17:33 indoor 5K PR and went 16:40 in a double that included a 4:55 mile.  Outdoors, she took another 18 seconds off of her 5000 PR with a 16:22 for 7th  at Mt. SAC. 

She ran four steeple PRs during the season, but her national coming out party would occur at her first NCAA Division I Track and Field Championships, where she was an All-American, placing sixth in 9:55.

Just 19 months after collapsing within shouting distance of the finish line in her first and only high school state cross country meet, she scored in NCAAs.

As steady improvement and plateaus came, Frerichs felt a seismic shift. She was no longer the underdog.  Motivation began to wane.

"Looking back, I realize now that I had fallen in love with the attention I was getting from running when I became successful rather than with running itself," she said. "I got used to success, and when my progress started to slow, I lost some of my desire. It's not an easy thing to admit, but that's what happened."

What Frerichs didn't know was that she was about to have her perspective radically altered by a friend's tragedy.

She had helped with a Christian running camp in southwest Missouri in previous summers.  That summer, one of the coaches gave a testimonial that would reframe what she thought about the sport and her role in it.

Earlier in the year, the coach had just signed up for a marathon after finding a renewed love for running, but right after one of the best runs of her life, she fell in the shower and suffered a career-ending injury. 

"She never felt sorry for herself though, instead praying to God asking, 'What's next?'," said Frerichs. "She then realized she could recommit herself to swimming and set a new goal of swimming a race that goes to Alcatraz and back. One door had closed for her, and instead of feeling sorry about that door closing, she ran with full trust through this new door God had opened."

"I realized I needed to stop feeling sorry for myself that my first love of gymnastics had been taken away from me," Frerichs continued. "I had to stop running for tangible success, and run through this new door God had opened for me with perseverance and full trust that it was the path set for me."

With this new understanding of the sport and a new outlook, Frerichs catapulted from the national level to the world-class level over the next year.

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Closing Out College

In what would be her final year at UMKC, Frerichs improved to 13th at the NCAA Cross Country Championships. 

She followed that up with a 5th-place finish in the 5000 at the NCAA national indoor championships.  Outdoors she ran 9:31.36, finishing second in the steeple at NCAAs, behind future Bowerman Track Club teammate and fellow Missouri native Colleen Quigley.  Suddenly Jenny Simpson's 9:25.54 collegiate record in the steeple seemed within her grasp.

But she would do it wearing another uniform.

Coach Butler accepted a position at the University of New Mexico, and Frerichs followed. That fall, she helped the Lobos win the NCAA cross country team title while placing fourth individually.  That spring, she took down Simpson's collegiate record in winning the NCAA steeple title in 9:24.41.

She'd come a long way, but she'd go much further still.

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High School Cross Country Shapes a Pro Career

After graduating with a chemistry degree, Frerichs decided to put medical school on hold and see how far her running could take her. She signed a contract with Nike and became part of the powerful Bowerman Track Club.

Even then, there were echoes of that one season of high school cross country in her decision.

"There were no large female training groups in the US before Bowerman," Frerichs said. "I so loved the team bonding in cross country that I wanted to find that in a professional group, and I found it with the women of the Bowerman Track Club." 

The Bowerman Track Club is likely the greatest women's training group ever assembled on US soil.  The current roster includes Shalane Flanagan, Amy Cragg, Elise Cranny, Kate Grace, Marielle Hall, Shelby Houlihan, Colleen Quigley, Emily Infeld, Gwen Jorgensen, Vanessa Fraser, and Karissa Schweizer.

She's seen incredible gains as a result. 

In 2016, Frerichs made her first Olympic team, lowering her steeplechase PR to 9:20.92 at the US Olympic Trials, then finished 11th in the Rio Olympics.

In 2017, she was the World Championship silver medalist behind fellow American Emma Coburn in a historic American 1-2 finish. She slashed her PR to 9:03.77.

In 2018, Frerichs took down Coburn's American Record in Monaco by running 9:00.85.  

For context, that mark is the equivalent to approximately a 3:55 1500, a 14:19 5,000 and a 30:05 10,000. All those equivalents are faster than the current American records in those events.

The soccer-playing gymnast from Nixa, Missouri, who never ran a state track meet and just one season of high school cross country holds arguably the best mark in a distance event on the track by an American woman ...ever.

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Lessons from the Past and Looking to the Future

In their 2013 book Long-Term Athlete Development, authors Istvan Balyi, Richard Way and Colin Higgs describe research which indicates that participating in multiple sports and minimizing high level competition until approximately the ages of 14-16 has a greater chance of producing long-term success, not only higher achieving athletes but also those who continue to remain active later in life.  

Numerous college and professional coaches are beginning to favor athletes who stayed in multiple sports longer than those who specialized early.

Frerichs is one such case. 

And she's started 2019 by making her first U.S. World Cross Country Championships team. This weekend she'll take the starting line in Des Moines, Iowa, and attempt to qualify for the World Championships in the Steeplechase again. 

Next year is the Tokyo Olympics.  

Her fantastic journey still has a lot more twists and turns ahead.

But no one is more prepared for the eventual twists and turns.