Commentary

Collegians making impact in Eugene

Updated: June 30, 2012, 9:32 PM ET
By Luke Cyphers

EUGENE, Ore. -- Act like you haven't been there before.

That's what Emma Coburn and Shalaya Kipp did at the U.S. Olympic trials on Friday night, and it worked out fine.

Coburn and Kipp, both students at the University of Colorado, took first and third, respectively, in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, beating a field of pros for a trip to London and headlining what turned out to be a banner day for collegians here.

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Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesEmma Coburn, left, and Colorado teammate Shalaya Kipp finished first and third, respectively, in the 3,000 steeplechase Friday to earn spot on U.S. Olympic team.

And while the pair of college kids ran like cold, calculating veterans to make the U.S. team, they weren't afraid to show a little emotion after punching tickets to the Olympics. Make that a lot of emotion. Kipp, a 22-year-old redshirt junior who grew up ski racing in Utah, wore a face of utter disbelief as she crossed the line in 9:35.73, 0.11 seconds behind runner-up Bridget Franek, seven seconds under the Olympic qualifying standard and more than seven seconds faster than her previous PR.

"Honestly, I wasn't that sure I was going to make [the team] or not," Kipp said, smiling through misty eyes. "I'm still enrolled in summer school that's supposed to get started in a week. I might have to reevaluate my schedule now."

But it was the usually cool Coburn, the defending U.S. champion in the event, whose tears could have filled one of the Hayward Field water jumps as she spoke to a small gaggle of reporters after the race.

"I'm so sorry," she said between sobs. "We were so rushed in our victory lap, and it didn't even sink in until this moment. I know I'm a hysterical mess, but this is why we get up every day and run, and it's why we sweat and cry and work our asses off in practice. This is our dream, and to have it come true, it's just really special. And to do it with my teammate who's now one of my best friends ... I think we both feel really blessed right now. It's all just hitting me that we're Olympians, and it feels really special."

Though Coburn led from wire to wire in the race and finished in 9:32.78 -- and the outcome for her was never in doubt -- no one begrudged her a good cry. She took a big gamble to be here. After winning the national title and claiming a spot on the U.S. world championship team at Daegu last summer, the 22-year-old from tiny Crested Butte, Colo., decided to redshirt at CU -- forgoing all NCAA competition in the outdoor season -- so she could train full-time for the Olympics. She changed her major to marketing and real estate and was able to stretch out her coursework to allow more concentration on training, with only a limited race schedule.

The gamble clearly paid off, as she was by far the class of the field. When asked if she'd turn pro, she hesitated, saying she thought she owed it to her school, coaches and teammates to come back and compete in the NCAAs. But Coburn's move has already helped the Buffs because it helped Kipp, who benefitted from taking on a new role. "I couldn't rely on Emma anymore," Kipp said.

Thrust to the fore as a team leader, she won an NCAA title this spring in the steeple, and that experience steeled her for the trials. "The NCAA season was definitely steps I needed to take," Kipp said. "I needed to get used to pressure on me going into races, and I needed to win some races. Having a successful collegiate season was necessary."

The educational system has benefitted other U.S. events in Eugene. Coburn is the second student to win an event here, following the 27-foot, 4-inch footstep of Texas long jumper Marquise Goodwin, who earned his London trip earlier in the week.

In all, eight collegians have qualified for London. One of them was Tia Brooks, a shot-putter from Oklahoma who placed third behind medal favorite Jillian Camarena-Williams and Michelle Carter on Friday. She's a proven winner, holding the NCAA indoor and outdoor titles, but Brooks admitted to being a bit overwhelmed during Thursday's qualifying round.

"I'm really young and this is my first Olympic trials, and I was really nervous," she said. But she settled in early Friday, heaving the iron ball 60 feet, 2 inches on her second throw, a toss that held up for third place behind Camarena's 62-10¼ and Carter's 60-11¼.

College athletes always make an impact on Olympic teams. Jeremy Wariner came out of his Baylor season in 2004 to win gold in the 400 meters, and a pair of college kids, Florida's Tony McQuay and USC's Bryshon Nellum, beat Wariner for spots on the 2012 team this week.

And they'll continue to be heard from through the end of the trials. No fewer than 20 college athletes are competing in finals this weekend, including some of the most competitive events. Three college runners made it through to the women's 400 hurdles finals, while two others qualified for the stacked women's 200 final, a field that includes the likes of Allyson Felix, Carmelita Jeter and Sanya Richards-Ross.

LSU national champ Kimberlyn Duncan owns the second-fastest time this season, a 20.19 mark. "I'm not intimidated," Duncan said.

Clearly, she's not alone among her peers. It may be summer vacation, but the college kids are doing work.

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.