RCW: The Fifth Year
In her fifth and final year competing for the Kansas track & field team, redshirt senior Courtney Coppinger isn’t leaving anything left to chance. The veteran distance runner has had somewhat of a breakout year in her final go-round, and that is culminating with her first trip to the NCAA Outdoor Track & Field Championships in her signature event, the 3,000-meter steeplechase.
Growing up down the road from Lawrence in the Kansas City metro area, Coppinger attended St. Theresa’s Academy, a private school in Kansas City, Missouri. Having attended a small high school, Coppinger thought that was the type of place she wanted to attend for college as well, so she set up visits at Iona, Belmont, Portland, Loyola-Chicago and tried to decide where she would continue her running and academic careers.
“I always thought I wanted to go to a private school, but my dad was always saying, ‘You should visit a bigger school just to see what that’s like,'” Coppinger recalled.
Taking her dad’s advice, Coppinger set up a visit at the University of Kansas, not only because it was down the road from her hometown, but also because KU distance coach Michael Whittlesey was the first college coach to call her when her recruiting period began.
“On the first day that I was able to be recruited as a senior, (Coach Whittlesey) called me and I told him I wasn’t looking at a school like KU, but if anything changes I’ll get back to you,” Coppinger remembered. “He said, ‘Just let me know, I’ll be here.'”
“I remember her competitive nature and seeing some of her results from the Missouri State (Track & Field) Meet,” Whittlesey said of what stood out about Coppinger in high school. “Talking to her and her dad, it was clear she was going to be a very competitive and driven individual.”
After taking her visit in Lawrence, Coppinger began comparing all of the other schools she had visited to Kansas, which, in her words, was a “good sign.”
Coppinger ultimately decided on KU, citing the chance to be part of building a distance program under Whittlesey’s tutelage as a major factor. She liked the idea of joining a team that had potential to grow and develop, similar to her high school team.
Once she chose Kansas, Coppinger was ready to get her collegiate career going. She made her Kansas debut in the 2013 cross country season at the Bob Timmons Dual Classic, finishing 10th. She ended her first cross country season with a 41st-place finish at the Big 12 Championship and an 86th-place finish at the NCAA Midwest Regional, before transitioning into the beginning of her track & field career.
Coppinger’s first indoor track & field season came to a halt earlier than expected, however, as she was sidelined with mononucleosis (mono). However, she was able to utilize her redshirt year for both the indoor and outdoor seasons, giving her four more years of eligibility for each.
In the three years following her freshman season, Coppinger steadily improved on the track, but felt like she never reached her full potential in those seasons.
“I got better every year after getting sick, but I never felt like I reached my potential. I always felt like I was in better form than what my results showed,” Coppinger said.
Coppinger admitted those years were a struggle to get through, and said she sometimes wondered if running was something she should continue to focus on.
That all changed a little more than a year ago at the 2017 NCAA Division I Track & Field West Preliminary Round in Austin, Texas.
Coppinger missed qualifying for the NCAA Championships, needing a top-12 finish in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the West Prelim to earn a trip to Eugene. She finished 18th, with a time of 10:35.86, 16 seconds slower than her season-best time she ran just days prior at the Big 12 Conference Outdoor Championship.
“I came home from regionals and looked at the results. I didn’t realize how close I was to making it to nationals until that point,” Coppinger said. “If I would have gotten 12th place, I could have gone. The girl who got 12th ran the exact time that I had run at (the) conference (meet) two weeks earlier. So she ran what I had run, and she made it to Eugene. That really got me going, because I realized the opportunity was there and I didn’t take advantage of that.”
That moment was a turning point for Coppinger. She realized she only had one more year of eligibility remaining to compete collegiately, and she decided to make sure she put it all on the line to go out with a bang.
“I sat down (after missing qualifying for the NCAA Outdoor Championships in 2017) and I was like, ‘I have this amount of time to achieve my goals.’ Literally, at that point, I told myself I was going to Eugene next year. That was my goal,” Coppinger said. “That is what I was going to train every run for, every practice for, come excited to every practice ready to do that, and every step toward that was to get to where I am now.”
With a goal she was completely focused on achieving, Coppinger said she had to change her mindset from her previous years of competition.
“I feel like I had too tight of a grip on what people thought of me what I thought of myself, (like) why wasn’t I getting better as a runner,” Coppinger confessed. “I was just too anxious and too stressed out and overwhelmed with it.”
Knowing she didn’t have eligibility remaining in cross country for her fifth year at KU, Coppinger used the summer following her 2017 outdoor season to try to reset. She stepped away from running for an entire month and only did things like bike and swim. In that month, Coppinger relied on her faith to help retune, and her previous conceptions of running and the identity that had formed in her own mind faded away.
When she finally got back into training, she found her love of running had been renewed.
“I started waking up each morning excited to go on a run, excited to use the ability that I have been given, by God, every day,” Coppinger said. “I just really devoted myself to using this talent I had been given to only be a positive thing in my life. It was never going to bring me down, it was never going to be negative, so I took that and I ran with it. Every day, nothing was negative. So if I had a bad run, I would still be thankful, I would still be joyful, I would still be the best teammate, friend and person I could be.
“I devoted myself to be the best person I can be in my faith and however that looked on the team then I would be happy and accepting of it. I prayed about it and was like, ‘If God wants me to be someone who is cheering people on for this fifth year, then let Him do that. If God wants me to be someone who is injured, then let me be the best at being injured. If God wants me to be the best at being at the back of the pack, let that be. Or even if God wants me to be leading the pack, then let that be.'”
A month off and a new mindset put into motion a successful summer and fall of training. Not having a season of cross country eligibility left meant Coppinger didn’t need to be in top shape when she reported to school in August. Being a little more out of shape than her normal for that time of year, Coppinger trained with the freshmen on the cross country team, something she said helped relieve any pressure there might have been on her. She slowly built her strength and fitness as the first semester of her fifth year of college progressed.
“I could just feel things start to change and Coach (Whittlesey) started to get really excited because he started seeing that we could start putting a lot of good miles on my health and strength,” Coppinger said. “He started telling me that I should be focused on being an All-American in the steeplechase because that was something he knew I could attain.”
When the time finally came for Coppinger to get back on the track with the start of the 2017-18 indoor season, she felt ready to go, but at the same time also a little nervous, even though she knew going into the race she wouldn’t finish.
Coppinger’s first time back in competition since her 18th-place finish at the 2017 West Preliminary wasn’t to see what kind of time she could run.
Coppinger, teammate Sharon Lokedi and Whittlesey made a trip to Boston for the Boston University Season Opener on December 2, 2017, with one goal in mind – to get Lokedi an NCAA Championships qualifying time. Coppinger’s job was to pace Lokedi in the star-studded 5,000-meter run.
Knowing not only Lokedi’s season, but many of the top distance runners in the nation’s seasons, relied on Coppinger’s ability to pace the pack, she began to get nervous prior to the race.
“Before the race I went to Coach and was like, ‘I’m freaking out, these girls’ seasons are on my shoulders,'” Coppinger said. “Coach looked at me and just said, ‘Relax. You were brought here because you are good at pacing and you are good at helping, so just relax and do it.'”
So, Coppinger relaxed and helped the powerhouse field of athletes run some of the best times in the nation for the entire season, including Lokedi’s time of 15:39.05, which proved to be a school record and her best time of the indoor campaign. All told, seven of the 16 other runners in Coppinger’s heat qualified for the NCAA Indoor Championships in the 5,000.
“Boston was such a great experience,” Coppinger recalled. “I got to help all of those girls achieve their goals at the beginning of the season and I got my (own) first-hand experience with the ‘big dogs.’ That was the first time I could test out this new attitude I had taken on, this newfound joy, this love of running and thankfulness. It was almost like a fulfillment of the prayer of God helping me be a supporter, or a racer, or whatever it may be.”
Coppinger’s season opener, even as a rabbit, set the tone for an impressive indoor campaign for the fifth-year senior. She claimed the 3,000-meter run title at the KU-KSU-WSU Triangular, her first real race of the season, before winning the 3,000 meters and setting a new personal record by nine seconds at the Mark Colligan Memorial. After that, Coppinger ran the mile at the Rod McCravy Memorial in Lexington, Kentucky, and despite it being just the fourth time of her career competing in the event, she finished second and became the No. 9 performer in school history with a time of 4:46.85.
“I really enjoyed the mile, and after that I went up to Coach (Whittlesey) and said, ‘I want to win the mile at Big 12 indoors,'” Coppinger recalled. “He looked at me and was like, ‘All right, we’ll make that happen.'”
Before she could get to the conference indoor meet, though, Coppinger had two other competitions. She next ran at the Iowa State Classic where she again PRed, shaving another eight seconds off her best time in the 3,000 meters. Then she was a member of the distance medley relay team at the A. Wilson Invitational, where she ran the opening leg and helped the team break the school record by 66-hundredths of a second.
With two more successful meets under her belt, Coppinger was ready for the Big 12 Conference Indoor Track & Field Championship at the Lied Recreation Center in Ames, Iowa, February 23-24. Entered in the mile and the 3,000-meter run, as well as a member of the DMR team, Coppinger knew she would have a busy weekend.
Coppinger opened the league meet with a third-place finish in the prelim of the mile to earn a spot in the final. She ended the first day of competition by helping the DMR team to a third-place medal and earning her first trip to the award podium of the weekend. The second day was a chance for Coppinger to achieve her goal set just weeks earlier, when she toed the line in the mile final.
She was unable to win the conference crown in the mile, coming up less than two seconds shy of the first-place finisher, but Coppinger didn’t get discouraged with the result. Instead, she used it as a motivator for her final race of the weekend.
“Coach (Whittlesey) came up to me right after the mile had ended, and I think there were two hours before the 3K and (he) was like, ‘We don’t need you in this 3K, but just give it what you can,’ which was essentially saying, ‘If you feel horrible during the race, it’s ok.’ So I got up to the line and I just used that momentum to want to do what was best for our team.”
Coppinger gutted it out and stayed up near the front of the pack the entirety of the 3,000-meter race.
“With about 600 meters left, I realized Sharon had secured the win, but that the second-place spot was completely up for grabs,” Coppinger said. “I remembered (Kansas head track & field) Coach (Stanley) Redwine saying the night before that he expected eight-to-10 points in the 3K from the team, and I thought, ‘Why not 18?!’ So I used that competitive drive to help propel me through those final few laps and I was able to take second. Sharon and I going one and two was a great highlight of the indoor season.”
In all, Coppinger helped account for 22 of the Kansas women’s team’s 112 points, which secured the team’s highest finish at the indoor conference meet since 2013. In addition, her second-place finish in the 3,000 proved to be another PR by three seconds at 9:31.66, making her the No. 6 performer in school history in the event.
After an impressive final showing at the indoor conference meet, Coppinger capped off her indoor career with Second Team All-America honors as a member of the distance medley relay team that placed ninth at the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships in College Station, Texas.
Using the momentum of a successful indoor campaign, Coppinger opened her final outdoor season at the Stanford Invitational in Palo Alto, California, one of the premiere distance meets in the nation each year. Running in the steeplechase, Coppinger posted a career-best time of 10:09.74, shaving 10 seconds off her previous personal record, and all but solidifying her spot at the West Prelim later in the season.
Coppinger continued her final outdoor season with a win in the 1,500 meters at her final home meet of her career, the 91st Kansas Relays Presented by RCB Bank, and also helped pace Lokedi to another 5,000-meter school record at the same meet.
She placed third in the steeplechase at the Big 12 Outdoor Championship in Waco, Texas, and finished seventh in the 5,000 meters to tally eight points to help the KU women’s team to a tie for third place.
“I think I put too much pressure on myself and put too much expectation on myself to win (the steeplechase at the Big 12 meet) and I ended up making a pretty big competitive mistake,” Coppinger said. “I just started not competing, I let girls go and ended up in third. Unfortunately, our team ended up tied for third place, so, of course, I felt like I could have won and helped our team more. I think it was a good reality check moving into regionals.”
With her reality check, Coppinger was ready for the meet she had been waiting an entire year for, her shot at redemption and at achieving her goal of qualifying for the NCAA Outdoor Championships.
Coppinger entered the West Prelim in Sacramento, California, May 24-26, as the 10th-ranked steeplechaser in the nation. She needed to secure a top-three finish in her heat or to run one of the next-three fastest times after the auto-qualifiers to punch her ticket to Eugene. Stacked up against some of the best runners in the nation in her heat, Coppinger and Whittlesey both knew she would need a great race to move on.
“I talked to her before her race at regionals,” Whittlesey said. “I told her, ‘You’ve got to be ready to run 9:50, you’ve got to be ready to break the school record. We have talked about it all year, so go do it.'”
And she did.
Coppinger stayed with the front of the pack and hovered around the fourth-place spot the majority of the race.
“I remember coming down the homestretch and we had three laps to go, and first three (runners) had gapped me,” Coppinger recalled. “That lap I had stayed (at) the exact same pace, but they had picked it up by two seconds. So they were kind of rolling on a new momentum.”
Then she heard the Sacramento State announcer.
“I remember hearing, ‘Let’s cheer Coppinger in, let’s see if she can help bridge the gap and get some sort of time to qualify her. Let’s give it up for her folks! Let’s get Coppinger to Eugene!’ I am so glad I heard that. I look back on it and I laugh. I remember coming back around and hearing Coach Whit say, ‘Cut down 600 and you’re in.’ So hearing the announcer and Coach (yelling), I looked up and realized it was the exact same thing that happened in the indoor 3K. I saw the girl in front of me and I made up my mind right then that I was going to beat her.”
And she did.
Coppinger chased down the pack, closed the gap, and in the final 100 meters passed the girl in front of her to finish third in her heat and earn an auto-qualifier for Eugene.
With a smile on her face as she crossed the finish line, Coppinger was elated to realize that her goal of making it to the NCAA Championships was coming true. Then she looked up at the clock to see her time – 9:51.28. A 16-second PR. But even better, it was a school record, something she didn’t realize until after her teammates mobbed her to congratulate her.
“I didn’t even realize it,” Coppinger said. “I went back to the tent and all of my teammates came up to me yelling, ‘School record!’ and I just started crying.”
And now, Coppinger has her eyes fixed on the NCAA Championships. She will run in the semifinal of the 3,000-meter steeplechase on Thursday, June 7 at 4:32 p.m. PDT (6:32 p.m. CDT) at Historic Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. The senior will need to be a top-five finisher in her heat or run one of the next-two fastest times to move on to the final, which is set for Saturday.
Although she wants to live in the moment and not focus too much past nationals, Coppinger is forced to look into the future a bit, as she will be getting married on June 23. To make a lifetime event an even more exciting weekend, Coppinger could potentially run at the USA Track & Field Championships in Des Moines, Iowa, two days prior to her wedding.
At the end of the summer, Coppinger and her future husband, Evan Barnes, will move to Flagstaff, Arizona, where they will both be working toward earning their Ph.D.’s in biology and teaching at Northern Arizona University.
Until the wedding and the move west, though, Coppinger is only focused on the opportunity at hand – finishing her fifth year as an All-American in the steeplechase.