Jenny Simpson

Jenny Simpson has long-standing record in sight after spectacular season

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NEW YORK — Jenny Simpson felt embarrassed as the London Olympic women’s 1500m final began.

That’s because Simpson, the surprise 2011 World champion in the event, wasn’t on the track at the Olympic Stadium. Two nights before, Simpson was eliminated by fading to last place in her semifinal — “a shameful performance,” she called it that night, reportedly while breaking into tears.

So, on the night of the final, she joined supporters at her sponsor New Balance’s hospitality house at the Games. They watched the race.

“To be there, surrounded by people that were hoping to be watching me race the final and were crossing their fingers for a medal in the final, and the fact that I was there with them in that room was a little bit embarrassing to me,” said Simpson, standing across from the Guggenheim Museum on Friday, one day before she defends her Fifth Avenue Mile title.

“When you sign up to be a professional athlete, you sign up for good days and bad days.”

The bad days have become less and less frequent since the Olympics.

Simpson, 28, rebounded to win the 2013 World Championships silver medal in the 1500m. This year, she whacked nearly three seconds off her personal best, won the final two Diamond League races of the season and the Diamond League season title.

The Coloradoan won’t get as much mainstream praise for her performances since this is the only year in the Olympic cycle without a major global championship. But she was arguably the best U.S. female track and field athlete this season.

The blueprints were conceived last fall, in goal-setting with her coaches, Mark Wetmore and Heather Burroughs, who guided her at the University of Colorado and she returned to after that disappointing 2012. A wise move.

“My goal, really, was incredibly straightforward,” Simpson said. “I wanted to PR. I wanted to run as fast as I ever had in the 1,500 meters. I wanted to set up my season so that I had as many opportunities to do that as possible.”

Simpson twice set a personal best. She finished fourth at the Prefontaine Classic on May 31 in 3:58.28, smashing her previous top time from the same meet in 2009 by 1.62 seconds.

Thirsty for more, Simpson clocked 3:57.22 at a Diamond League meet in Paris on July 5. She finished second in that race, but she also became the second-fastest American ever over the metric mile in doing so. Only Mary Slaney has run faster, by one tenth of a second.

From there, Simpson raced for victories in Stockholm (Aug. 21) and Zurich (Aug. 28) over fields that included the fastest women since London — Ethiopian-born Swede Abeba Aregawi, Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan and Hellen Obiri, who was born in and has always competed for Kenya.

“I put together a better season than I ever could have imagined,” said Simpson, who won the Zurich finale by .01 of a second over countrywoman Shannon Rowbury.

Simpson said she does not race motivated by what happened in 2012, but it’s hard not to draw back to Olympic years in track and field. Especially in her case, given a chance encounter at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore.

Simpson walked into a local sandwich shop with a coach a few days before the 1500m race that would determine if she made her second Olympic team. A short while later, another woman walked into the shop. It was Slaney, whom she had never met.

“[Slaney] came in, with a friend who realized that the only two American gold medalists in the 1500m were in the same room together,” said Simpson, referencing Slaney’s 1983 World title, as no U.S. woman has won Olympic 1500m gold.

The meeting was polite and short. “Like an acquaintance,” Simpson said of their only meeting to date. “We got our sandwiches and went on our way.”

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Next season, Simpson will chase Slaney’s time, the longest-standing American record in an Olympic men’s or women’s track event.

“The record is important to me at this point, mostly because it means that I’m still improving,” Simpson said. “I don’t know that I’m really ready to appreciate or understand that significance until I have a chance to do it.”

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Simpson (center) is looking to win her third Fifth Avenue Mile in four years. (NYRR)

Simpson is, of course, a different runner now than at Colorado, when she tacked Sara Slattery‘s school record in the 5000m on her freshman bulletin board but was converted into a 2008 Olympic steeplechaser.

She hasn’t yet pasted Slaney’s 1500m time in her Boulder home.

“Maybe because I’m not living in a dorm room anymore,” Simpson said, smiling.

She also feels different from the wide-eyed woman who captured the 2011 World Championship with the slowest gold-medal time ever, wrapping herself in the American flag and the meet mascot’s arms in euphoria.

“I’m so much more sure of myself when I step on the starting line,” she said. “I have absolutely progressed to a point where if [the pace] is fast, I can still be a factor, where back in 2010, 2011, that might not have necessarily been the case.”

If Simpson progresses, or even remains at this level, she will have a chance in 2016 to break a 44-year U.S. gold-medal drought in Olympic track events longer than 400m. No man or woman has won since Dave Wottle captured 800m gold while wearing a cap in Munich.

She might not be the only hope to snap the skid, with Olympic and World medalists Galen RuppLeo Manzano and Matthew Centrowitz (Centrowitz leads the men’s field in the Fifth Avenue Mile).

In Simpson’s event, the precocious talent is Mary Cain, who became the youngest woman ever to make the World Championships 1500m final at age 17 last year. Cain, too, is in the Fifth Avenue Mile on Saturday.

Cain, a college freshman, tells her friends who do not know much about track and field about how unusual Simpson’s dominance is in an event usually owned by Africans and Europeans.

“She finished, as an American woman, No. 1 in the world, she’s won the Diamond League,” said Cain, who owns a fuzzy yellow duck named “Puddles,” the same name of a stuffed duck given to a teenage Simpson as a consolation gift after her parents discovered and let free her pet duck, Noah, when she was in high school. (Simpson still has Puddles.) “That’s something that doesn’t happen.”

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Who is Italy’s greatest Olympian?

Alberto Tomba
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Italy ranks sixth on the total Olympic medal list, thanks in large part to its fencers. Italian fencers have won a leading 125 medals, more than double the nation’s total in any other sport. The Italians are known for their personalities, from La Bomba to the Cannibal, with six of their best detailed here …

Deborah Compagnoni
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only Alpine skier to earn gold at three straight Olympics. Compagnoni overcame a broken knee as a junior racer and life-saving surgery to remove 27 inches of her intestine in 1990 to win the Albertville 1992 super-G by 1.8 seconds. It remains the largest margin of victory in the discipline for either gender since 1968. The following day, Compagnoni tore knee ligaments in the giant slalom. She returned to win the GS at the 1994 Lillehammer Games. Compagnoni ended her Olympic career with the biggest rout in a GS at a Winter Games, prevailing by 1.41 seconds in Nagano.

Klaus Dibiasi
Diving
Three Olympic Gold Medals

The only diver to win the same individual event three times. The Austrian-born Dibiasi took platform silver in 1964 at age 17, then three straight golds through 1976. Dibiasi was coached by his father, who was 10th on platform at the 1936 Berlin Games. In his final Olympics, Dibiasi held off a 16-year-old Greg Louganis, who would go on to challenge, if not overtake, Dibiasi as the greatest male diver in history.

Eugenio Monti
Bobsled
Six Olympic Medals

Regarded by many as the greatest bobsled driver in history. Monti captured two silver medals in 1956, missed the 1960 Winter Games that didn’t include bobsled, then two bronzes in 1964 and a pair of golds at age 40 in 1968. On top of that, the nine-time world champion is remembered for an act of sportsmanship in 1964. In between runs, Monti lent a bolt off his own two-man sled to a British team whose sled was damaged. The Brits took gold, ahead of both Italian sleds.

Alberto Tomba
Alpine Skiing
Three Olympic Gold Medals

“La Bomba” dazzled by sweeping the giant slalom and slalom at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games, after dubbing himself the “Messiah of Skiing“ beforehand. Known for his man-about-town ways, Tomba offered one of his gold medals to East German figure skater Katarina Witt should she fall short in her event. After Witt repeated as gold medalist, the story goes that Tomba showed up with a bouquet of roses and an autographed picture of himself, made out out to “Katerina.” “I used to have a wild time with three women until 5 a.m.,” Tomba once said. “Now I live it up with five women until 3 a.m,”

Valentina Vezzali
Fencing
Six Olympic Gold Medals

An 18-year-old Vezzali was an alternate for the 1992 Olympics, forced to watch on TV as the Italian women took team foil gold. Vezzali made the next five Olympics, winning medals in all nine of her events, including three straight individual titles, the last as a mom. Vezzali finished her career with nine total Olympic medals, 25 world championships medals, a flag bearer honor at the 2012 Opening Ceremony and as a member of Italy’s parliament.

Armin Zoeggeler
Luge
Six Olympic Medals

“The Cannibal” retired in 2014 as the first athlete to earn a medal in the same individual event at six straight Olympics. Zoeggeler earned silver and bronze medals in 1994 and 1998, then overtook German legend Georg Hackl for gold in 2002, followed by winning at home in Torino in 2006. He held on for bronze medals in 2010 and 2014, behind the new German luge star, Felix Loch, who would be coached by Hackl. Growing up on top of a steep hill, Zoeggeler began sledding at age 7 to catch the school bus at the bottom.

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Kurt Angle recalls devastation, exultation of Olympic wrestling gold medal

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Kurt Angle doesn’t remember much from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, but he won’t forget that moment of deep emotional pain.

In the 100kg final, Angle and Iranian Abbas Jadidi were tied 1-1 after regulation and an overtime period.. Eight total minutes of wrestling. They also had the same number of passivity calls, forcing a judges’ decision to determine the gold medalist.

After deliberation, the referee stood between each wrestler in the middle of the mat. He held each’s wrist, ready to reveal the champion to the Georgia World Congress Center crowd — and to the athletes. Angle, now 51, has rarely watched video of the match. But he distinctly remembers, in his peripheral vision, Jadidi’s left arm rising.

“I thought I lost,” Angle said by phone this week. “So right away, I was like, s—, four more years.”

Turns out, the Iranian was raising his own arm. An instant later, the referee suppressed Jadidi. He lifted Angle’s right arm. The wrestler sobbed.

“I had so much emotion because I was devastated and then I was told that I won,” Angle said. “It was a very odd experience. I didn’t know how to handle it. It felt like my father died all over again. That’s how much grief I had. Then, all of a sudden, you won.”

Angle thought of two people immediately after he won, falling to his knees in prayer. First, his father, David, who died in a construction accident when Angle was 16. Second, the 1984 Olympic wrestling champion Dave Schultz, his coach who was murdered by John du Pont six months before the Games.

Angle went on to become one of the most famous U.S. gold medalists of the Atlanta Games, due largely to a two-decade career as a professional wrestler, including as a world heavyweight champion with the WWE.

It would have been different if the referee kept Jadidi’s arm in the air. Angle went into the Olympics knowing it would be his last competition, but only if he took gold. Anything less, and he would continue on, perhaps into his 30s and the 2000 Sydney Games. Despite everything Angle went through just to get to Atlanta.

In the year leading up to the Olympics, Angle lost Schultz, broke his neck at the U.S. Open and, five minutes before each match at the Olympic Trials, received 12 shots of novocaine to numb the pain long enough to advance to the next round. Angle later developed a painkiller addiction.

Angle, a Pennsylvania native, was part of the Foxcatcher club when du Pont shot and killed Schultz. Angle said he wasn’t consulted for the 2014 film “Foxcatcher,” but he thought it was well done save a few instances of dramatic license.

“Unfortunately, I hate to admit this, but if it weren’t for Team Foxcatcher, I probably wouldn’t have won my gold medal,” Angle said. “I probably wouldn’t have known Dave Schultz, and I probably wouldn’t have been able to achieve what I did. It sucks because, to have to thank John du Pont for the ability of allowing me to pay me to wrestle full time and win a world championship [in 1995] and Olympic gold medal, that was huge, but he killed Dave Schultz. The club would have thrived to this day. It just sucks it turned out the way it did, because it made me the best wrestler in the world. Dave Schultz had a lot to do with that, but a lot of wrestlers that followed could have not had to worry about money and could have trained and competed.”

Angle shared his gold medal with, he estimated, thousands of people before housing it in a safe.

“The gold was wearing off,” Angle said. “One kid, I remember, I was at an elementary school, and he grabbed my medal by the ribbon and started twirling it around real fast. He let go of it, and it hit the wall. There’s a big dent in my gold medal. That was the last time I brought it to an elementary school.”

Angle announced in 2011, at age 42, that he was training to come back for the 2012 Olympic Trials. He never made it, calling it off with a knee injury.

“But I trained hard for it,” Angle said, noting he still kept up appearances with Total Nonstop Action Wrestling. “I will tell you this, I wouldn’t have made the team. My goal was to place in the top three. I just missed the [thrill of] competition.”

It meant that Angle’s last match remained that Olympic final. His last moment as a freestyle wrestler having his arm raised.

“All I wanted to do was win a world championship and an Olympic gold medal, and I did them both,” Angle said, sobbing, just off the mat that night in Atlanta. “If I died tonight, I’d be the happiest man in the world.”

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