How Rocky River’s Sam Coleman became one of the nation’s top steeplechasers –

How Rocky River’s Sam Coleman became one of the nation’s top steeplechasers

ROCKY RIVER, Ohio – In 18th century Ireland, equestrians would race from town to town along the countryside, avoiding streams, ditches, bushes and other obstacles. Church steeples, the tallest, most visible point in each town, served as the start and finish lines.

A century later, in Britain, the horse was eliminated, and people would race from steeple to steeple avoiding all the same obstacles on foot.

Today, the steeplechase in track and field is more than a distance race and different from the hurdles. It features a 30-inch high barrier backed by a water pit nearly as deep with an upward slope. The wettest event at any track meet where it’s contested, the steeplechase is hard to categorize and difficult to prepare for.

Unless you are Rocky River senior Samantha Coleman.

“A lot of high schools around here don’t have the whole water jump setup, so there’s not a bunch of races close to here,” Coleman said. “I’ve been practicing the forms and stuff for a while, but I hadn’t actually done any races until a few weeks ago.”

Coleman is one of Ohio’s top distance runners. Her 4-minute, 59.64-second mile time ranks sixth statewide this season. She enters the OHSAA postseason ranked No. 25 in the two-mile with an 11:14.08 according to MileSplit, despite running the event just once this year.

Perhaps most impressively, she already is one of the top girls high school steeplechasers in the country.

The eighth-place mile runner at last season’s Division I state meet, and the source of Rocky River’s only point in the final team tally, Coleman is following in her father’s footsteps and will run steeplechase at Ohio State next year.

“He was the first person that showed it to me actually,” Coleman said. “I first saw it when I was watching the world championships for track probably four or five years ago. It just looked really cool because it’s so interesting and not like any of the other races.”

Rocky River high school distance runner Sam Coleman (left) takes a handoff from a teammate during practice. Coleman is on her way to Ohio State next year to run steeplechase. She currently runs anything from the 400 to 3,200 for Rocky River. Joshua Gunter,

Her father, Patrick, a Buckeyes steeplechaser in the early 1990s, vividly remembers the race that piqued Sam’s interest.

“The 2017 world championships, it was the year Emma Coburn actually won the world championships for the women’s steeplechase, and it was a big thing. American women don’t win many track and field world championships in the distance races,” Patrick Coleman said. “I remember her saying ‘Dad, I think I can do that. Can you help me with this?’”

There was no way for them to know at the time, but that day five years ago, paired with behind-the-scenes endurance and hurdling work, led the Colemans to the Centerville Elk Relays on April 15 of this year.

“I didn’t know she was even doing it,” longtime Rocky River head track coach Julie Achladis said. “Her father sent me an email saying ‘Would it be OK if we entered Sam in a meet over spring break that the rest of the team wasn’t going to?’ He told me that she wants to run steeplechase in college and one of the college coaches said they would like her to get a race under her belt if she could.”

Rocky River high school head coach Julie Achladis. Joshua Gunter,

So, after getting the OK from Achladis, the Colemans headed 216 miles southwest. Though it was Sam’s first time actually running the 2,000-meter steeplechase, the work she put in to prepare quickly became apparent.

Coleman won decisively, finishing the five laps in 7:25.64. She beat Lebanon’s Abby Taylor, the runner-up, by 33 seconds, as the pair were the only two to finish under eight minutes.

“For other, normal races you’re usually thinking, ‘Wow, I can do this, but it’s really painful right now,’” Coleman said. “But for the steeplechase it’s nice because you’re distracted and you’re always focusing on getting over the barrier or getting over the water jump, so it made it go by a lot faster.”

Not only was her time faster than the rest of the field in Centerville, but it’s Ohio’s fastest time this season. Her performance ranked 13th nationally at the time, qualifying her for the Nike Outdoor Nationals in Eugene, Ore., on June 18.

“It’s crazy,” Coleman said. “Since I was younger I’ve known some people who have gone to Nationals. I always thought, ‘Wow, that would be so cool,’ but I never really thought that I would be able to go. … I’m definitely really excited. It’s just funny when people ask me what I’m going for, then I have to explain it.”

The steeplechase was introduced to track and field at the 1879 English championships. It has been contested over varying distances as an Olympic men’s event since 1900, and was introduced on the women’s side in 2008. Kenya has dominated the event, winning all but two men’s steeplechase golds since 1968. Russia, Tunisia, Bahrain and Uganda won the 2008, 2012, 2016 and 2020 Olympic titles, respectively. American steeplechaser Courtney Frerichs won the silver medal at the 2020 games in Tokyo.

Olympic steeplechase is 3,000 meters with 28 barriers and seven water jumps. While steeplechase is not an OHSAA state meet event, high school and AAU races are typically 2,000 meters with 18 barriers and four water jumps. The water barrier is placed either inside or outside the track, making each lap longer or shorter than the standard 400 meters. The start line also changes from the backstretch to the homestretch depending on the placement of the water jump.

Rocky River high school distance runner Sam Coleman (right) is on her way to Ohio State next year to run steeplechase. She currently runs anything from the 400 to 3,200 for Rocky River. Joshua Gunter,

Patrick Coleman shares the credit for much of Sam’s steeplechase success with Achladis and other Rocky River coaches who have helped mold his daughter. She’s been part of the Pirates program since her freshman year and was voted captain of both the track and cross country teams this year.

“She’s been really fortunate to be led by women,” he said. “Her high school cross country coach is Dee Zuercher, her distance coach for track is a woman named Beth Huffman. They’ve both been foundational for her. They’ve taken great care of her.”

Huffman was also a mile runner at Rocky River. Coleman passed her on the Pirates’ all-time list with a 4:59.64 at the Great Lakes Conference Championship. That’s the second-fastest girls mile time, and one of two sub-5-minute races, in Rocky River history.

“She’s a great kid,” Huffman said. “She trains at a really high level. She works really hard year round and has all of the pieces a coach could ever want. She’s really coachable, she listens, she’s really great with strategy, she’s really strong in training. All the good stuff.”

Rocky River high school distance coach Beth Huffman talks to runners during practice. Joshua Gunter,

She’ll be joining an Ohio State program that won both the Big Ten outdoor men’s and women’s championships this season.

Patrick Coleman did not want to influence Sam’s decision, but he couldn’t help but be enthusiastic about the idea of his daughter heading to his alma mater. Sam is set to major in mathematics. She was very particular about picking a school that fit her.

Rocky River high school distance runner Sam Coleman is on her way to Ohio State next year to run steeplechase. She currently runs anything from the 400 to 3,200 for Rocky River. Joshua Gunter,

“It was kind of funny because I could tell that my dad was trying not to pressure me too much,” Coleman said. “He didn’t want to force me to go to OSU, but I could also tell that he was really excited if I was going to go. So, when I finally decided it was really fun. I’m definitely excited.”

Steeplechase has already taken Coleman to Centerville and Columbus. With the Nike Outdoor Nationals on the horizon, who knows what’s next?

“Since she was a freshman she stepped in and was a powerhouse, and she’s gotten better every year. She’s worked hard and has done anything we’ve asked her to do,” Achladis said. “She is hardcore and she’s determined. She’s going to be successful in whatever she does.”