Last summer she became the first American woman to win the world 1,500-meter championship since 1984.
Written by: Courtney Baird
At around 9 p.m. Korea Standard Time on Sept. 1, Jenny Barringer Simpson was entering the final lap of the women’s 1,500-meter final at the world championships in Daegu, South Korea.
At this point, most people watching the race would probably have ruled out Simpson, a former steeplechaser for the University of Colorado and the American record-holder in that event, for the win, as she was nearly in last place.
But Simpson, ever the tactician, didn’t see it that way.
“I felt like throughout the race I had really good mental contact with the front of the group. I felt very strongly that if they really started moving, I could go with them at any moment,” she said.
And go she did. Rounding the final turn, Simpson started to surge, and with 20 meters until the finish, the other women seizing and straining with effort, it became clear that Simpson was about to win the world championships, accomplishing something no American woman has since 1984.
It’s been 27 years—longer than Simpson, 25, has been alive—since an American woman has won a distance event at a world championships or Olympics.
With 200 meters to go, her husband, Jason, normally calm and composed when he watches his wife race, was out of his seat at the 65,000-person Daegu stadium, jumping up and down.
Simpson’s coach, Juli Benson, who Simpson credits with encouraging her to switch from the steeplechase to the 1500m last year, was having an out-of-body experience, thinking, “She’s winning, and this is a big meet.”
And the people at home who were aware of the magnitude of Simpson’s impending achievement watched in awe, with tears in their eyes, as she blew through the finish line first.
Putting the magnitude of Simpson’s achievement aside, it was actually a long time coming, as she is part of a resurgence of elite American distance runners, who, until recently, were relegated to the prelims at major international meets.
“For me, [the turning point] started in 2004, when Deena [Kastor] came into the stadium for the [Athens Olympic] marathon, winning the bronze medal,” Simpson said.
By 2009, American women had collected three more medals at world championships and the Olympics. Shalane Flanagan’s bronze in the 10,000m at the Beijing Olympics was particularly significant for Simpson, as the two roomed together in Beijing, where Simpson competed in the steeplechase, placing ninth and well out of medal contention.
“I thought, ‘I’m sharing a room with this person and I’m totally willing to dedicate [myself to get] to the level that she’s training and racing,” Simpson said. “I think that really humanized the whole experience for me and made me really believe it was something that I could do, too.”
Simpson grew up in Oviedo, Fla., and, as a kid, loved horseback riding and running.
“Through an after-school program I was introduced to road racing, and any time I could get in a race and come home with a little medal or a little prize, it was so motivating for me,” Simpson said.
Even if she was simply scrapbooking, “hers always had to be the best, but she wasn’t cocky about it at all,” said her sister, Emily Barringer. And if she felt like she didn’t put 100 percent into an activity, “She went back and redid it and made sure that she did it better.”
Simpson’s high school running coach, Jay Getty, also noticed that she was a kid who relished racing—a rare talent in a sport that is synonymous with excruciating pain.
“She so looks forward to testing herself,” said Getty, who remains close with Simpson. “And when it’s over with, when she gets the outcome such as a world title or qualification for the Olympics, she’s excited just as if it was Christmas as a kid.”
While Simpson was always a great runner by U.S. standards, her true promise as an international threat only began to emerge in 2009. Simpson credits this to a large mileage base she built after the Beijing Olympics, when she decided to red-shirt the 2008 collegiate cross-country season.
“I just had this incredibly long stretch during the fall [of 2008] of really great mileage. I not only built up my mileage to about 80 to 85 miles a week, but I was also running that consistently every week.”
By the time the 2009 track season rolled around, things really started to click, and in June she ran a 3:59.90 in the 1500m, which at that point in the year was the third-fastest time in the world. She then placed fifth in the steeplechase at the world championships in Berlin in what was her last official race as a Colorado Buffalo; she was only a stone’s throw away from getting on the podium for the first time in her career.
After the race, Simpson told her coaches that she wanted to medal at her next world championships.
“As an athlete at this level, that’s what you have to do,” Simpson said. “You have to just tell yourself, ‘This was really great for this year, but it’s not acceptable the next two or three years.’”
Toward the beginning of this year’s outdoor track season, however, Simpson’s goal was in jeopardy. She fell ill with a bad bronchial infection in late May and had to scratch the Diamond League meets in Eugene, Ore., and then New York, which was only two weeks before the national championships, the qualifying meet for Daegu.
“She was so sick during Prefontaine [the Oregon meet] that she couldn’t get out of bed,” Simpson’s husband said.
At this point in the season, Simpson had a choice. She could play the cards she was dealt to the best of her ability, or she could mope.
She chose to play her cards, and she credits her husband and coach with helping her realize that sulking before nationals, where she eventually placed second, would get her nowhere.
“I was out on a training run with my husband, and I just stopped in the middle of it and started balling. I was just so sad, and I felt so sorry for myself,” Simpson said. “Instead of him putting his arm around me and comforting me and telling me, ‘Oh, it’s going to be OK,’ he just looked at me straight in the face and said, ‘You have a lot of work to do. And we don’t have time for this.’ And that was just perfect.”
If Simpson’s steady progression on the international stage is any indication of what’s to come in London at the 2012 Olympics, then America has a medal favorite on its hands.
But the Olympics is a funny event, where anything can happen, and there are no guarantees that Simpson will even make the 1,500m team for the U.S., let alone qualify for the final.
This is something that Simpson is well aware of.
“It’s so tempting when you’re going into such an important year to try to be brilliant and implement something new that will make everything so much better. I think that is often a mistake. My philosophy is simply to continue to build on what I already have achieved and the formula that got me there,” Simpson said.
Assuming Simpson does make the Olympic final, however, she’ll have a weapon that few can match—her simple love of racing and the joy she takes from it.
“I’ll go to the Olympics with the same goal that I have gone into every championship: First, make it to the championships fit and healthy, and then, make it to the final. I know if I can just make it to the starting line of the final, the hardest part is over and the most fun part is just ahead.”
This piece first appeared in the December 2011 issue of Competitor Magazine.
About The Author:
Courtney Baird is the editor-in-chief of Inside Triathlon magazine and a track geek at heart.