AN AMERICAN ICON
Simpson greatest at 1,500m
If there was any argument against the notion that Jenny Simpson is the greatest female American 1,500-meter runner ever, it may have been settled in London last week when she claimed her fourth medal at a major international championship. It could even be argued the Boulder resident and University of Colorado graduate is America’s greatest of either sex in the “metric mile” — one of the sport’s marquee events.
Simpson unleashed a killer kick over the final 100 meters Monday at the biennial world championships, bursting from fourth place to claim the silver medal. She previously claimed world championships medals in 2011 (gold) and 2013 (silver). Last summer in Rio, she became the first American woman to medal in the event at the Olympics, claiming bronze. Best American female ever? “In my opinion, yes, and I would go further,” said CU coach Mark Wetmore, who still coaches Simpson, along with assistant Heather Burroughs. “At that distance, is there a male American that’s in the same category?”
Only Bernard Lagat, but with asterisks. Born in Kenya, Lagat won two Olympic medals and a world championships medal in the 1,500 for his native country before becoming an American citizen in 2005. He claimed two more world medals in the 1,500 running for the U.S, along with three in the 5,000 meters.
Simpson stands alone among native-born Americans, man or woman. While still at CU in 2009, she ran the 1,500 in 3 minutes, 59.9 seconds, and at that time only two American women (Mary Slaney and Suzy Hamilton) had run faster. In those days, her primary event was the steeplechase, which she ran at the 2008 Olympics, but after the 2009 world championships, she shifted her focus to the 1,500. She has since won a medal in every major championship except the 2012 Olympics, where she says she was “under-prepared,” and the 2015 worlds, when she lost a shoe in the finals after a runner clipped her heel.
“What people say of me that makes me feel the best about my career is when they talk about how consistent I’ve been,” Simpson said last week from Switzerland, where she is training for season-ending meets in Europe. “I don’t have some of the records, and not all of my medals are gold, but I’ve been really good over a really long period of time. The 3:59 when I was in college wasn’t a fluke. The gold medal in the world championships in 2011 wasn’t a fluke, and the bronze last year (at the Olympics) wasn’t a fluke. At some, point when these things keep going well, you’ve got to stop thinking it’s a fluke. That’s really fun for me, to know my consistency is going to be the main narrative of my career.”
On Monday — on the same track where she surprisingly failed to reach the final round of the 2012 Olympics when she was the reigning world champion — Simpson was 5 to 10 meters behind the leaders coming off the final turn. She blazed down the stretch to finish in 4:02.76, only 0.17 behind Olympic champion Faith Kipyegon of Kenya. It wasn’t about redeeming herself on that track, but the memories were there.
“It’s certainly part of my story,” Simpson said of London 2012. “There’s no way I can step out on that track and not have it be part of what is going through my mind throughout the six or seven days that I’m there. But mostly when people ask me about 2012, I just think about how different and more evolved of a person and a racer I am five years later.”
Simpson turns 31 this month, but she remains at the top of her profession. One distinction she has yet to secure is the American record. In 2014, she ran her PR of 3:57.22, which was only 0.1 seconds off the record Slaney set in 1983, but Shannon Rowbury of the Nike Oregon Project lowered the mark to 3:56.29 in 2015.
“It (the record) is something I would really love to still run,” Simpson said. “I would love to run the fastest race of my life yet. I’ve come so close to the American record several times, and if I ran a PR, I would be frighteningly close to it again, if not surpass it. Running fast is still really important. That has to be something you care about doing if you’re going to keep trying to win global medals. You have to care about continuing to get faster. You can’t just say, ‘I’m going to outsmart all of these women.’ You have to keep getting better.”
Jenny Simpson celebrates with the American flag after the women’s 1,500 meter final at the 16th IAAF World Athletics Championships in London last week. She is still chasing the American 1,500-meter record, which is about a second off her PR.