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Jenny Simpson adapts to emerging 1500m stars in U.S., abroad

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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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Ehsan Hadadi, Iran’s first Olympic track and field medalist, has coronavirus

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Ehsan Hadadi, Iran’s lone Olympic track and field medalist, tested positive for the coronavirus, according to World Athletics and an Iranian news agency.

“We’ve received word from several Asian journalists that Iranian discus thrower Ehsan Hadadi has tested positive for coronavirus,” according to World Athletics. “[Hadadi] trains part of the year in the US, but was home in Tehran when he contracted the virus.”

Hadadi, 35, became the first Iranian to earn an Olympic track and field medal when he took silver in the discus at the 2012 London Games. Hadadi led through four of six rounds before being overtaken by German Robert Harting, who edged the Iranian by three and a half inches.

He was eliminated in qualifying at the Rio Olympics and placed seventh at last fall’s world championships in Doha.

Jordan Larson preps for her last Olympics, one year later than expected

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Whether the Tokyo Olympics would have been this summer or in 2021, Jordan Larson knew this: It will mark her final tournament with the U.S. volleyball team, should she make the roster.

“I’m just not getting any younger,” said Larson, a 33-year-old outside hitter. “I’ve been playing consistently overseas for 12 years straight with no real offseason.

“I also have other endeavors in my life that I want to see. Getting married, having children, those kinds of things. The older I get, the more challenging those become.”

Larson, who debuted on the national team in 2009, has been a leader the last two Olympic cycles. She succeeded Christa Harmotto Dietzen as captain after the Rio Games. Larson started every match at the 2012 and 2016 Olympics.

As long as Larson was in the building, the U.S. never had to worry about the outside hitter position, said two-time Olympian and NBC Olympics volleyball analyst Kevin Barnett.

“She played as if she belonged from the start,” he said. “They will miss her all-around capability. They’ll miss her ability to make everyone around her better. She’s almost like having a libero who can hit.”

Karch Kiraly, the Olympic indoor and beach champion who took over as head coach after the 2012 Olympics, gushed about her court vision.

“It’s a little dated now, but somebody like Wayne Gretzky just saw things that other people didn’t see on the hockey rink,” Kiraly said in 2018. “And I remember reading about him one time, and the quote from an opposing goalie was, oh my god, here he comes, what does he see that I don’t see right now? She sees things sooner than most people.”

Larson grew up in Hooper, Neb., (population 830) and starred at the University of Nebraska. She was a three-time All-American who helped the team win a national title as a sophomore. She had the opportunity to leave Nebraska and try out for the Olympics in 2008 but chose to remain at school for her final season.

She earned the nickname “Governor” as a Cornhusker State sports icon.

Larson helped the U.S. win its first major international title at the 2014 World Championship. She was also part of the program’s two stingers — defeats in the 2012 Olympic final and 2016 Olympic semifinals, both matches where the U.S. won the first set (and convincingly in 2012).

“It just gives me chills thinking about it now,” Larson said of the Rio Olympic semifinals, where Serbia beat the U.S. 15-13 in the fifth. “That team, we put in so much. Not just on the court but off the court working on culture and working on how are we best for each other. How can we be the best team? How can we out-team people? Certain teams have a better one player that’s a standout that we maybe didn’t have or don’t have. So how can we out-team the other teams? We had just put in so much work that was just heartbreaking.”

Larson and the Americans rebounded to win the bronze-medal match two days later.

“I don’t know anybody that didn’t have their heart ripped out. It was just a soul-crusher of a match,” Kiraly said of the semifinal. “More meaningful was what a great response everybody, including Jordan, mounted to the disappointment of that loss.”

The U.S. took fifth at worlds in 2018 and is now ranked second in the world behind China.

Larson spent the past club season in Shanghai. The campaign ended in mid-January. She hadn’t heard anything about the coronavirus when she took her scheduled flight back to California, learning days later that LAX started screening for it. Now, she’s working out from her garage.

Larson is in line to become the fifth-oldest U.S. Olympic women’s volleyball player in history, according Olympedia and the OlyMADMen.

Her decade of experience could go a long way to help the next generation of outside hitters, led by three-time NCAA champion and Sullivan Award winner Kathryn Plummer.

“If you’re coming into the USA program as an outside hitter, in the next year or the quad or the quad after that,” Barnett said, “the measuring stick is going to be Jordan Larson.”

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