This Kangaroo hops into steeplechase elite

Junior Courtney Frerichs, of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is the U.S. leader in the women's 3,000-meter steeplechase heading into next week's NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships at Hayward Field. (Photo courtesy of UMKC Athletics)
Junior Courtney Frerichs, of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, is the U.S. leader in the women's 3,000-meter steeplechase heading into the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, June 10-13, at Hayward Field.

STANFORD, Calif. – It’s one thing to call oneself a Kangaroo, with a capital “K.” It’s another to actually have the hops to prove it.

Consider Courtney Frerichs, proud to call herself a Kangaroo from the University of Missouri-Kansas City. The redshirt junior bounded over the barriers and water jumps in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Payton Jordan Invitational in an NCAA Division I-leading 9 minutes, 32.12 seconds on May 2. She needed almost all of her whopping 11-second personal best to hold off Florida State’s Colleen Quigley, who came across second in 9:33.63.

Frerichs’s time still stands as the overall U.S. leader this season and No. 8 in the world.

How UMKC came to have a kangaroo as a mascot is easily explained by Frerichs:

“When they went to find a mascot (for UMKC), kangaroos had just come to the (Kansas City) Zoo. The school was looking for a mascot and they wanted to keep it in the ‘K’s.’ ‘’

When told that in Australia, kangaroo is a tasty dish in the free-range manner of venison, Frerichs said, “I don’t honestly know that I could eat one now that it’s my mascot.’’

Frerichs is one of the more interesting athletes expected to compete in the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships, June 10-13, at historic Hayward Field. She’s the best in the country in her event at a school not much known for track and field. Primarily a gymnast and soccer player in high school in Nixa, Mo., Frerichs ran track almost as an afterthought but did have good results in cross country as a senior and was recruited to UMKC by the previous coaching staff.

University of Missouri-Kansas City junior Courtney Frerichs placed 6th in the 3,000-meter steeplechase two years ago. She was a redshirt during the 2014 season. (Photo courtesy of UMKC Athletics)

University of Missouri-Kansas City junior Courtney Frerichs placed 6th in the 3,000-meter steeplechase two years ago. She was a redshirt during the 2014 season. (Photo courtesy of Michael Scott)

Frerichs said she hated to give up gymnastics but “my body couldn’t handle it. In high school it was injury after injury. I knew my future wasn’t in it, but I love it. It definitely helped me in the steeplechase – leg strength and flexibility with the hurdles and running toward stationary objects didn’t faze me.’’

It was new distance coach James Butler’s good fortune to have this promising athlete come to him as a freshman in 2012.

“I got lucky,’’ Butler said. “In high school she did soccer and gymnastics and sort of showed up for track. She was a 2:24 (800-meter) runner. Her freshman year after cross country we sat down and I said you have the huge athletic background in the steeple that requires you to be flexible and coordinated and have spatial awareness. Let’s see what we can do with it.

“She took to it like a duck in water. She picked it up real quick.’’

Butler said he was impressed with Frerichs’s ability to hurdle the barriers without any previous hurdling experience. The water jump, being more technical, required some work, but once she learned the proper technique of pushing off the barrier on one foot and landing far enough in the water jump on the other foot so as not to slow down, she began to see steady improvement.

“I had a few issues with it as a freshman,’’ Frerichs said. “It was awkward. I had a pretty bad fall at Mt. SAC my freshman year. I hurt my foot. Now it’s my strength. I usually pass people over the water jump.’’

Added Butler, “She has such strength from gymnastics that getting to the end of the water jump is not a problem whatsoever.’’

The Payton Jordan meet at Stanford’s Cobb Track & Angell Field might have served as an NCAA preview in the steeplechase with Frerichs and Quigley recording the two fastest times of the season. Looming behind them are Leah O’Connor of Michigan State (9:41.88) and Erin Teschuk of North Dakota State (9:43.83), the only other runners faster than 9:45 heading into the NCAA Preliminary rounds.

“This year in particular is going to be the best year ever for NCAA women in the steeple,’’ Frerichs said. “You have six athletes who have run the (World Championships) ‘A’ standard (over the past two years), which is incredible. ’’

University of Missouri-Kansas City junior Courtney Frerichs set her PR of 9:32.12 earlier this season. (Photo courtesy of UMKC Athletics)

University of Missouri-Kansas City junior Courtney Frerichs set her PR of 9:32.12 earlier this season at the Payton Jordan Invitational. (Photo courtesy of UMKC Athletics)

Quigley is also from Missouri and she and Frerichs raced against each other in high school.

“At the end of the day, we’re going to give each other a hug,’’ Frerichs said.

Frerichs showed enough promise in her first year in the event that she made the U.S. team for the IAAF World Junior Championships in 2012. She finished eighth in her heat and had a best time of 10:34.48. Two years later, she’s more than a minute faster.

“I still feel like it was a fluke,’’ she said of her 2012 debut in the steeple. “I was nowhere near NCAA level. It was on this (Stanford) track the next year I went from 10:34 to 10:08. That season I went on to run 9:55 and placed sixth in the NCAA.’’

As part of Frerichs’s master plan, she redshirted in 2014 in order to finish her fifth year of college in 2016 with Butler as her coach. He hopes to have his pupil prepared to make a run for Rio in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials at Hayward Field.

Considering her arc of improvement, that’s not unrealistic. Frerichs ran 9:49.06 at the Stanford Invitational in early April and is now a stunning 17 seconds faster. Her time at the Payton Jordan meet would have won the 2014 NCAA title by four seconds over O’Connor, a senior, who returns as the reigning champion.

“We had talked about this year it would take being in shape to run 9:30 at NCAAs to win it,’’ Butler said. “She’ll have to at least be in 9:30 shape to have a shot at it, to put (herself) in position to win.’’

The women's 3,000-meter steeplechase field at the NCAA championships will feature four women who have run under the World Championships "A" standard this year, led by UMKC junior Courtney Frerichs. (Photo courtesy of UMKC Athletics)

The women’s 3,000-meter steeplechase field at the NCAA championships will feature six women who have run under the World Championships “A” standard of 9:44.00 in the past two years, led by UMKC junior Courtney Frerichs at 9:32.12. (Photo courtesy of UMKC Athletics)

But the Olympic Trials are another matter. Although 9:32.78 won the 2012 Trials, the winner, Emma Coburn, has since taken her PR down to an American record 9:11.42 in ranking No. 2 in the world by Track & Field News. Americans Stephanie Garcia, Nicole Bush and Ashley Higginson all ran faster than 9:30 in 2014.

In other words, if the Kansas City Kangaroo wants to make a run at the 2016 Olympic team, she’ll have to be in the 9:20s. Butler is doing all he can to get her to that level, one race at a time.

“We sat her down and made a long-term goal of getting to the Olympic Trials,’’ Butler said. “Now she’s taking bigger and bigger steps. We want to be on the (starting) line and give her an opportunity to do it. That’s the hope for 2016.’’

Improving by leaps and bounds is nothing new for this Kangaroo.

Previous TTUSA stories by John Crumpacker:

Taking a turn for the better

Dendy keeps Gator tradition alive

Scaling new heights

Big aspirations for Texas A&M’s Little

Finding his sweet spot

Sun Devils eye repeat of NCAA titles

John Crumpacker was a sportswriter for the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle for more than three decades. In that time he won seven national writing awards and covered 10 Olympic Games. He was president of the Track & Field Writers of America on two occasions.