With the Colorado men back yet again as a National title contender and facing off against Oregon this weekend at Pre-Nationals, we thought we’d take a look back and rank the Top 7 Buffs during the “Wetmore Era” which began in November of 1995 when Mark Wetmore was officially hired as the head cross country coach in Boulder. It didn’t take long for the Wetmore magic to take hold with Alan Culpepper winning the 5k the following spring at the NCAA Outdoor Championships. By 1998 the men’s cross country team was one of the best in the country, the squad being the focus of the now-famous book Running with the Buffaloes that chronicled their emotional season. Fast forward to today and Wetmore’s teams have won five National cross country titles (men-3 and women-2). He’s also coached individual NCAA cross country champs Adam Goucher, Kara Goucher, Jorge Torres and Dathan Ritzenhein. Track and cross country combined he’s had 11 National Champions who’ve combined for 18 total titles. So who makes the mythical Colorado co-ed top seven? Here’s what we came up with and keep in mind we used their college career only to rank them, though we do mention some of their professional achievements as well:
7) Alan Culpepper - There seemingly couldn’t have been amore perfect athlete for Mark Wetmore. From his days at CU and throughout his long and very successful professional career the cerebral Culpepper was a master of understanding what he was capable of and executing race plans to perfection. The first obvious example was in 1996 when Culpepper bided his time in the 5,000 at the NCAA Outdoor Championships before sprinting away from teammate Adam Goucher and the Arkansas duo of Godfrey Siamusiye and Jason Bunston. That championship was the first for a Wetmore athlete, a feat that has thus far been repeated 18 times. Culpepper’s pro career included two trips to the Olympics, a 2:09 marathon and a win at the 2007 U.S. Cross Country Championships over fellow Buffs Goucher, Ritzenhein and Torres.
6) Emma Coburn - One of three Buffs on this list to qualify for the Olympics while still in college, Coburn won the 2011 NCAA Steeplechase title just one year before winning the U.S. Olympic Trials and running at the London Games. Not only did she make the team but she qualified for the Olympic final, finishing 9th in 9:23.54, a personal best. She returned to CU for her fifth year in 2012-2013 where she won two more National Championships– Mile (indoors) and Steeplechase (outdoors). Her highest NCAA cross country finish was “only” 20th but her three individual track titles certainly earn her a spot on this list. Coburn signed a deal with New Balance last summer and remains the top steepler in the U.S. (assuming someone else on this list doesn’t return to the event).
5) Dathan Ritzenhein - In 2001, “Ritz” joined Jorge Torres at CU, giving Wetmore two Foot Locker National Champions on one team. They did not disappoint, leading the Buffs to a National title, with Torres finishing second and Ritz grabbing fourth in the latter’s true freshman season in 2001. Though the rest of his college career was filled with injuries he did have a a number of huge moments that we believe earn him the fifth spot here. First off, that freshman year continued in spectacular fashion when the Michigan native made the Senior Team for the World Cross Country Championships and then ran 13:27 for 5,000 during the outdoor track season. In the fall of 2003, Ritz pulled off arguably his biggest moment at CU when, after a long injury layoff, he returned late in the cross country season and out-sprinted Stanford’s Ryan Hall in a thrilling sprint duel to capture the NCAA cross country crown. That spring he ran 27:38.50 in his first ever 10,000, a time that would later qualify him for that summer’s Olympic Games. He cut the rest of his college career short by going pro early and has gone on to become one of the greatest American distance runners of all time with PRs of 12:56 (5,000), 27:22 (10,000), 60:00 (half marathon) and 2:07:47 (marathon).
4) Kara Goucher - It would probably be even harder to rank these seven on their pro careers but if we did Goucher, with a World Championships Bronze medal, top three finishes at the Boston and New York City Marathons and two trips to the Olympics, would be right there. Back in her CU days she was known as Kara Grgas-Wheeler before later marrying some guy on this list. Those CU days included three NCAA titles, with the 2000 cross country win where she led the Buffs to the Team Championship being the most prestigious. She also won the 5,000 and 3,000 at the 2001 NCAA Outdoor Championships, solidifying her place among the CU greats.
3) Jorge Torres - We felt really good about Culpepper at 7 and Coburn at 6 but ranking 1-5 was really tough. Torres gets the nod at #3, even with having won “only” one National title, because of his consistent excellence over four years and because that one title was the stuff of absolute legend. Torres came to CU with the weight of very high expectations on his shoulders after a stellar high school career in which he qualified for four straight Foot Locker National Championships, winning the meet as a senior. He seemingly picked up where he left off when he got to CU with consecutive finishes of 47th, 3rd and 2nd at NCAAs before entering the 2002 season with only a championship on his mind. It was eerily similar to Adam Goucher’s senior year when fans across the country desperately wanted the man who had been so close to finally win one. And like Goucher, who had to battle Abdi Adirahman in 1998, Torres would have to take down an all-time great to win. Over the last mile it was a two man battle between he and Arkansas’ Alistair Cragg for the championship. Despite Cragg’s superior track speed, Torres absolutely refused to lose and captured the victory by two seconds, cementing his place in CU history. Torres would go on to make the U.S. Olympic team at 10,000 meters in 2008 to cap off a great pro career as well.
2) Jenny Simpson - One of only two people on this list without that coveted National Cross Country title (though she was second twice), Simpson was dominant in just about every other way possible. She broke six NCAA records during her collegiate career, won four individual track titles and made it to the 2008 Olympics while still competing for the Buffs. It’s worth mentioning that she would have likely won several more championships were it not for the fact that she competed at the same time as another of the best female collegians ever, Texas Tech’s Sally Kipyego. Above all, she was the most competitive at the World level while still in college, running a 3:59.90 over 1500 meters to finish second at the Prefontaine Classic her senior year.
1) Adam Goucher - Though Culpepper’s 5k title came before any of Goucher’s four NCAA wins, it was really the fiery Goucher who started it all under Wetmore. Arriving in Boulder from nearby Colorado Springs in the fall of 1994 (when Wetmore was still an assistant), Goucher was coming off a Foot Locker National Cross Country Championship and feared no one from the day he stepped foot on campus. In November of ’94 he lost the NCAA title by just four seconds to Arizona’s Martin Keino, so at that point most would have thought it wouldn’t be long before the CU freshman would come out on top. Things don’t always go as planned however, and a sixth place finish the following year was followed by a redshirt season due to injury and a fourth place finish in 1997. Not all was lost however, as Goucher had excelled on the track during that period with National titles in the indoor 3,000 (’97 and ’98) and the outdoor 5,000 (’98). Still, it was the cross country title he wanted most of all and he’d have one final chance on November 23, 1998 at Rim Rock Farm in Lawrence, Kansas. Goucher entered the meet as co-favorite after having been beaten at the Pre-National meet by Butler’s Julius Mwangi. Eventually though, it was down to Goucher and future longtime rival Abdi Abdirahman, for the win. Cresting the final hill at warp speed and to the delight of the thousands on hand chanting his name, Goucher pulled away for a commanding 23-second victory. We’d rank this at the single top moment in the entire Wetmore era as Goucher set the tone for Torres, Ritz and all the rest that day in Kansas.
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