When asked the state of the women’s 1500m, one of the strongest events in track and field, Jenny Simpson thought of her days as a steeplechaser in 2009.
Simpson, after her last NCAA season at Colorado, remembered what happened after she placed fifth in the 3000m steeple at the world championships in Berlin, breaking her American record (gold medalist Marta Domínguez of Spain was later DQed for doping).
“I rushed home after the steeplechase at the world championships to be at my college cross-country camp, and I remember, we had three Americans that made the [1500m] final,” Simpson said last month. “I’m at home in Boulder, Colorado, watching the 1500m final, and just to have three Americans make the final was unprecedented [for a worlds or Olympics]. It was amazing.”
Simpson won the next world title in the 1500m two years later.
“Now, the depth of American distance running has grown and grown and grown,” she said. “But what’s happening in the United States seems to also be happening on the world stage. Every single year, it’s like another really incredible talent is added to this pool, and nobody drops off.”
At this time in the last Olympic cycle, Simpson was coming off a Diamond League season title, essentially crowning her the best 1500m runner of 2014. She clocked a personal-best 3:57.22, moving one tenth shy of Mary Slaney‘s American record from 1983.
The following three years weren’t so much about fast times as about global medals. Simpson missed out in 2015, finishing 11th with a bare foot at worlds. She rebounded with the first U.S. Olympic women’s 1500m medal — a bronze — in Rio and a silver at the 2017 Worlds.
While Simpson set personal bests this year in the mile, 3000m and two mile, she lacked a signature 1500m. Her four-year streak of national titles was snapped by the breakout Shelby Houlihan. She was 10th at the biggest international race of the season, the Diamond League final in Brussels.
“Ran really consistent and ran really well,” she said. “Had a 3:59 race, a four-minute race. I ran really solid in the longer distances earlier this season, but I didn’t have that real breakout moment that I had in seasons in the past. I didn’t have a 3:57. I didn’t have a medal. I didn’t win a Diamond League final.”
Simpson still believes she can challenge Slaney’s American records. Her mile PB from July moved her within .59 of Slaney’s mark at that distance. She feels she must be in that kind of shape to challenge internationally anyway with the likes of Olympic and world champion Faith Kipyegon of Kenya, world-record holder Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia, Diamond League champion Laura Muir of Great Britain, Caster Semenya of South Africa and Ethiopian-born Dutchwoman Sifan Hassan.
“That’s six people that can win gold, and there’s only three medals,” Simpson said, including herself. “I don’t know that there’s a time in history where the 1500m has been this deep for women.”
And now there’s a challenge domestically. Houlihan was the revelation of female distance running this season. Eleventh at the Olympics and 13th at the 2017 Worlds in the 5000m, this year she won two Diamond League 1500m races, plus swept the 1500m and 5000m at the U.S. Championships and broke the American 5000m record.
Houlihan dropped her 1500m PB from 4:03.39 to 3:57.34, faster than any of Simpson’s times from the last three years. She beat Simpson in all three of their head-to-heads this year after being winless in seven previous matchups.
“Shelby is someone I can’t given an explanation to,” Simpson said. “She was someone that was consistently good, but not this good. It’s hard to articulate exactly what the difference is between being a 4:03 to 4:06 runner to kicking with the best in the world in a 3:57, 3:58 race. The type of work to get there took me years, so for her to figure that out in one fall is just really incredible. That’s one thing. In addition to that, what she did in the 5K in Houston [American record] is also unbelievable. I certainly can’t explain it or figure out, so I’m just going to have to race it.”
At Tokyo 2020, Simpson can become the second-oldest American woman to earn an individual Olympic track and field medal (Jackie Joyner-Kersee, 1996 long jump). She hasn’t mapped anything beyond that, except that she wants to be at the 2021 Worlds in Eugene, Ore., preferably having made the U.S. team. Simpson has said she’s going to retire “with no talent left.”
“Every time I accomplish something,” Simpson said, “I think history will look back on this and my accomplishments will be in the context of what I think is one of the most competitive eras of middle-distance running.”
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