As Jenny Simpson rounded the final curve of a global 1500m final for the fifth time, she knew exactly what to do.
Ahead were three women who gapped her on the bell lap at the world championships in London on Monday night.
They were Brit Laura Muir and the leading duo of Kenyan Faith Kipyegon and Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan.
All three runners have faster personal bests than Simpson, who ranks No. 39 on the all-time women’s 1500m list.
As Simpson proved in 2011, 2013 and 2016, the rankings matter little when she is part of Olympic and world championships 1500m finals.
“I thought,” Simpson recalled going into the last straightaway, “no one’s going to believe I’m doing this again.”
In 2011, Simpson made the world championships team in the 1500m in her first full season focusing on that race.
A 1500m star she was not — ranking outside the world top 20 that season — but a racer? Definitely. Simpson lowered the American 3000m steeplechase record at the prior Olympics and world championships before moving to the 1500m.
And so at the 2011 Worlds, when the pre-race favorites fell off before the bell lap, it was Simpson who shifted all the way out to lane 3 and kept her form, moving from fourth to first.
After a disastrous, last-place 2012 Olympic semifinal, Simpson showed her mettle at the 2013 Worlds. She led nearly from the gun this time. Simpson was passed on the last lap by pre-race favorite Abeba Aregawi. It looked like Simpson would fall behind promising Kenyan Hellen Obiri on the final straight. But Simpson had properly rationed her energy and surged. She nearly caught Aregawi. Silver.
A runner stepped on Simpson at the 2015 Worlds, and she covered the last 600 meters with one shoe and a bloodying foot. 11th place.
Then in Rio, Simpson saw Ethiopian world-record holder Genzebe Dibaba go to the lead at the halfway point. Simpson chose not to tail her — others did — and faded to sixth place with 300 meters left. The patience paid off. Simpson couldn’t catch Kipyegon (the eventual surprise winner) or Dibaba, but she picked off three women, including Muir and Hassan. Bronze.
Coming into Monday night’s final in London, Simpson was already one of the most accomplished female runners in U.S. history. The only American woman with an Olympic 1500m medal. One of two (Mary Slaney) with a world 1500m title.
This field was loaded. The Olympic champion Kipyegon. The world-record holder Dibaba. Hassan, undefeated this year. Muir, the fastest woman of the last two years. And the wild card, Olympic 800m champion Caster Semenya.
Kipyegon and Hassan separated from the pack with 300 meters left. Muir initially chased them. Simpson did not.
“I covered every move that I could,” Muir said.
So there Simpson was, with 80 meters left and Muir, Hassan and Kipyegon between her and a fourth podium in five global finals.
She remembered one of her coaches, Heather Burroughs, telling her not to hesitate. She remembered watching the women’s 100m final on TV the night before. Countrywoman Tori Bowie took upset gold with a textbook finish herself, a well-timed lean. (Bowie and Simpson have similar stories switching events for success; Bowie was primarily a long jumper until 2014)
Simpson thinks. And she looks, beyond Muir, and assesses the two leaders.
“I can see how hard Faith [Kipyegon] and Hassan are racing each other, and I really believe I can get one of them if they’re working this hard this far out,” Simpson said. “It’s so weird to me that I can have all of those thoughts in those few, short seconds. But I just really believed I was going to be able to run at least one of them down.”
She finds an opening. Muir is out in lane 2 and slowing. For the first time she can think of, Simpson passes on the inside on a final sprint. As that happens, Hassan is cooked, unable to keep the pace with Kipyegon. The Dutchwoman flails to the far side of lane 1, opening up the rail. Simpson slips through, keeping her form.
As Kipyegon pumps her celebratory fist at the finish line, Simpson rushes in for silver, just .17 behind.
As this is all happening, Semenya put on her trademark sprint for bronze and ended up falling to the track. Muir fourth. Hassan fifth.
“I can talk about the race, but mostly it comes down to the last 100 meters,” Simpson said. “This is my 17th 1500m race at world championships [or Olympics], and with that comes 17 opportunities to do it the right way.”
Simpson became a 1500m runner six years ago. She has made every U.S. team for worlds and the Olympics and come away with four medals.
The success has come during an era of drug-related scrutiny in all running events. The 2012 Olympic final is now a mess of doping disqualifications. Aregawi tested positive last year for the controversial meldonium. Performance-enhancing substances were found in Dibaba’s coach’s hotel room last year.
“If I’m second in this race, you beat cheaters,” Simpson said. “Because there’s not zero cheaters in the race.”
The other medalists deserve acclaim. Kipyegon is just 23 and now an Olympic and world champion.
“My tactic was to run the last 300 meters, because I knew Semenya was fast in [the last] 100 meters,” she said.
Semenya raced a 1500m outside of Africa for the first time in six years at this meet. She still has the 800m left later this week, an event she hasn’t lost in almost two years.
Eight years ago, Semenya famously won the world 800m title at age 19 and a gender-testing controversy erupted. After these worlds, regulations may be imposed forcing some female athletes to again take hormone-suppressing medication. Semenya was asked about it.
“I have no time for nonsense, so medication, no medication, I’m an athlete,” she said. “I don’t have time for such things, you understand? For me, its their own decisions [the IAAF, Court of Arbitration for Sport].”
The South African had the closest view of Simpson’s move in the last 80 meters on Monday. And a pretty good one of Kipyegon, too.
Semenya, the most dominant female runner in the world today, was impressed.
“They move like rockets,” she said.
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