Interview: Courtney Frerichs On The Mindset Changes That Led to An Olympic Medal, American Record in 2021
Courtney Frerichs peels back the curtain on a season that included an Olympic silver medal, a new steeplechase American record of 8:57.77 and a third place finish in the Diamond League final.
Olympic and world championship steeplechase silver medalist Courtney Frerichs re-joins The CITIUS MAG Podcast. The last time she was on was in 2018 after she broke the American record in 9:00.85 at the Monaco Diamond League. This was recorded in August just after she became the first American woman to run under nine minutes in the steeplechase.
In 2019, she had what she believes to be a disappointing season that ended with a sixth-place finish at the World Championships just two years after taking silver behind Emma Coburn.
When the pandemic wiped away the 2020 outdoor season, she didn’t do a steeplechase workout at all. She took a break from training for the event and then had an injury in December. You’ll learn more about that and also how the two steeplechase races before the Olympic Trials set the blueprint for one of the best performances by an American at the Tokyo Olympics.
In Japan, she took the lead after a kilometer into the race and tried holding on but was passed in the final lap by Uganda’s Peruth Chemutai. Frerichs ended up with silver, which is the best performance by a female steeplechase at the Games since the event was added in 2008. You’ll be put in her shoes for that race and hear about Shalane Flanagan’s text message to her before the race + much more.
At the Pre Classic just a few weeks later, she lowered her American record to 8:57.77 and then took third at the Diamond League final in Zurich after we recorded.
I’ve transcribed a few parts of the interview below, which have been edited lightly for clarity.
On her improvements in 2021
"If I look at where most of my improvement has come from since I ran 9:00 in 2018, it's actually in the flat running. Last year in 2020, we put a pretty big emphasis on flat running. I felt really confident that the Bowerman Track Club was still the right place because I was still continuing to be pushed in areas that were probably my weaker areas. I actually think that having to train on my own again in the steeplechase helped me to feel confident in going to the front and pushing from the front because I was doing that in practice all year."
On how she viewed some of her flat race personal bests vs. steeple success
"I really started to struggle in 2018. I was really letting the thoughts of others around my lack of flat times change the way I viewed myself, which is not really a healthy thing. I started to feel that there was almost this shame that I couldn't do it all. I viewed myself as not good enough because I was only focusing on the steeple instead of being like, 'Hey, I found my event. I'm all in on this event. I'm good at it and I love it.' It was good that last year I was able to dip my toes in the flat stuff and see what I could do given a little more focus on it. It helped me carry a little more confidence. Unfortunately, I'll never be the fastest but I do think I have amazing strength in my 5K and 10K abilities, which come into play in the steeple. Knowing those things about myself and Jerry (Schumacher) knowing those things, led to some of the decisions we made in terms of how the races played out this year."
On steeplechasing in May after not competing in the event since the 2019 World Championships
"In 2020, I did just some straight hurdling but I didn't do a single steeplechase workout. I really just took an entire year off from the event. The event is really hard on your body and it gave me a chance to really tackle some of those hard 5K specific workouts and see what I could do in the 5K. Come 2021, I had only done one and a half steeple workout going into Mt. SAC and then very little hurdling. I had a hamstring injury in the winter that I was able to run through but not really workout through. We had to really modify things during our Flagstaff camp. Coming off of that, I was struggling with a lack of trust that I was ready to steeple."
"Worlds in 2019 was a little bit disappointing. Really in 2019, I didn't come close to what I had done the previous year. I think the combination of 'Am I ever going to get back to 9:00 shape?" plus "Is my body ready for this?" meant there were a lot of nerves going into Mt. SAC. I actually told Jerry I didn't think I was ready for it. He said, 'No, you need to get back out there. It doesn't matter what you run. You just need to get back out there.' The whole thought process behind that race was just to steeple again."
How her second race was the blueprint for her Olympic silver medal
"Going into Portland Track Festival, I was starting to come around and was running workouts a bit more confidently. One of the big changes was I was really starting to let go of forcing any sort of pace. I think for so long, after I ran 9:00, I felt that everything had to be 72s or faster. If it wasn't that fast, I wasn't working out hard enough or I wasn't good enough. There's some level of acceptance that you need to have and it's going to be a process to get to your peak form...
Going into that race, Jerry wanted me to feel confident in taking over at some point, being OK with it and being early. He was like, 'This is a good opportunity. We are at sea level.' He slowly started to realize how much more confident and even better I looked over the barriers when I go from the front. There is an advantage in the steeple in being able to see the barrier. I think that seeing that is what led him in the decision for the Olympic Trials and then the Olympics. At the time, I didn't realize that those race plans were what was really gearing me up for the Olympics. I'm glad we went with the schedule that we did. I think it ended up allowing me to work on the skills I needed to be ready at the Olympic Games."
Devising the Olympic race plan
"[Jerry] just kind of planted the seed before we had the final discussion. 'You might have to be the one to do it. You might have to be the one to make the race.' I had never done that before on a national stage. It was mostly: Hold on as long as you can and somewhere in the last 600m try to make a move or try to be there with 300m to go. I was definitely really nervous about it but then the night before in our final discussion of it all, we were discussing having a couple of plans. If someone else was planning on going to the front and pushing the pace, yeah go take it and I'll just sit on you. That's sometimes the easier spot to be in. Just shut the mind off and race. I had a plan for that. He basically said, 'I trust your instincts and I trust that you will know what's right but don't be afraid to go into the lead as early as 1,000 meters in, based on how it's playing out.' It felt good that there was a plan but also that I could trust myself to make the decision as to when the right time was going to be."
"I woke up to a text from Shalane that morning that she woke up with butterflies because she was really excited about the day. She just felt so confident that I was ready. She was like, 'I know it can be really scary to do what you are about to do but I feel so confident that you're going to walk away with zero regrets if you do this.' That really stuck with me. She was at the top for so long. She has so much experience. To hear that from her and to hear how confident she was that I could execute a race plan like that, I was like I have to trust that and believe that I'm ready for this."
On improving her mindset for races and workouts
"That's honestly been the biggest change I made this year: Just mentally being so much more prepared, so much happier and just felt ready with myself. I wasn't really focused on what anyone else was doing. I knew I was ready. I think there were a few big things we worked on. I have such a perfectionist nature. It was super innate probably and then I grew up in a sport that just sort of cultivated that in gymnastics. The whole premise of the sport is perfection. We really tackled that. We realized it wasn't just in terms of running that trait was coming out. It's probably been my whole life. Whenever I get into a scenario, especially in training, where someone is pushing the pace or it's playing out differently than I think it should be, what tools do I have or what can I do to handle that vs. going into a panic mode – which is what was starting to happen pretty frequently.
I think the injury I had in the winter is what put it over the edge in just panicking whenever things were going astray. It was either different mantras or words I was leaning on and then just remembering to breathe in those moments. I have a tendency to tense up. The shoulders raise. I stop breathing, which is the last thing you want to do when you're running. We worked really hard on just going into workouts and reminding myself that I belonged there and I could handle the things that were going to be thrown at me, even if it wasn't going to be perfect. Working on that day after day and week after week allowed me to stand on the starting line feeling like this race can play out in so many different ways and I'm going to be prepared no matter what.
Really working on that resilient mindset really allowed for me to embrace things being up and down a lot more. It was definitely a much more up and down year than I envisioned it being. Realizing that X plus Y didn't necessarily need to happen to get the result. There are so many different ways."
"That's one of the biggest mistakes I made going into 2019. I look at that one and think that was a year I wasn't quite where I wanted to be. I thought I had figured everything out in those first two years but really got to 2019 and was just trying to mimic what happens. Each year is going to play out so differently. I allowed myself to ride out the journey a little bit more this time – even if it was taking a bit more of a turn than I thought."
"My last two races reflected that. They were completely different races but I was able to mentally handle it and put together my best self on those days – even if it played out very differently."
"I think this is the first year that I've consistently stepped to the line ready for whatever is going to get thrown at me. I think a lot of that goes back to all of the work I've done on the mental side.”
On the ‘belong’ temporary tattoo that she wore in Tokyo
"I ordered a 10-pack of them. The word came from my therapist. In a lot of my best seasons, here's a word I kind of come back to. Usually, the word will kind of surface or just keep coming to me throughout the season. I wear my Fearless Artiken bracelet and that goes back to 2017 when I wore the fearless tattoo on my wrist. We kind of kept coming back to the word 'belong.' Jerry was starting to throw me into a lot of these workouts with Karissa (Schweizer) and Elise (Cranny) and I was nervous about it. I was like 'Oh my gosh. They're running so fast. I don't know if I can do this.'
She would remind me: Go into these workouts telling yourself you belong in there. We decided that would be the word for the Olympics. It's something that I look back at in 2019 and I didn't really embrace. I didn't really believe I belonged in the front pack. Whenever I went to take the lead, it was, 'You belong in the front. You belong here now.' I decided to do the temporary tattoo and it felt very fitting.”
"I roomed with Elle Purrier at the Olympics and I was telling her about it. She was like, 'That's so crazy. My college coach used to tell me to always remember that I belonged. He literally just texted me that.' So I asked if she wanted one and she was like, 'Yeah, actually I do.' She wore one too."
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That’s it from me in the latest edition of the CITIUS MAG Newsletter. As always, thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this, learned something new or have any questions or commentary on anything featured in this issue, feel free to hit my inbox by replying or writing to firstname.lastname@example.org