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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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David Taylor wins wrestling world title, at long last

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David Taylor, the formerly dominant NCAA wrestler known as the Magic Man, was stuck for five years.

Stuck finishing second or third in the 2013, 2014 and 2015 World Championships team trials in the U.S.’ toughest weight class owned by Jordan Burroughs. When Taylor moved up a division, he suffered the same fate in 2016 (Olympic Trials) and 2017.

At last, at 27 years old, Taylor made his first world team this summer. It helped that United World Wrestling expanded the number of weight classes from eight to 10 (still six at the Olympics), meaning Taylor didn’t have to go through Burroughs, Olympic bronze medalist J’den Cox or four-time NCAA champion Kyle Dake at trials. But Taylor earned his place, going undefeated internationally this year.

Then in Budapest on Sunday, Taylor completed a breakthrough run through the 86kg bracket, becoming a world champion.

Taylor is the oldest first-time Olympic or world champion for USA Wrestling since 2006, when now-freestyle head coach Bill Zadick did so at 33. Taylor reached the top four years after ending an NCAA career at Penn State that included two Hodge Trophies, given to the college wrestler of the year.

Taylor had to work from start to finish in Budapest, upsetting Iran’s Olympic and world champion Hassan Yazdani in his first match Saturday. He then dumped Turkey’s top-seeded Fatih Erdin in the final, scoring a two-point takedown in the first 10 seconds and getting a 12-2 tech fall.

The U.S. earned medals in all four weight classes with finals Sunday.

The 2012 Olympic champ Burroughs rallied for bronze, beating Cuban-born Italian nemesis Frank Chamizo via tiebreaker by scoring the last point with 26 seconds left. It’s the seventh Olympic or world medal for Burroughs in eight global tournaments, coming one day after he suffered just his seventh defeat in seven-plus years on the senior stage.

Nick Gwiazdowski earned his second straight heavyweight bronze, winning both of his repechage matches after a Saturday loss to eventual silver medalist Deng Zhiwei of China.

In the 61kg bracket, worlds rookie Joe Colon earned a bronze medal, two weeks after replacing U.S. champion Nahshon Garrett on the team. Garrett, who beat Colon in the world team trials final in June, is out with a torn pectoral.

Cox and Dake advanced to Monday’s gold-medal matches in the 92kg and 79kg divisions, respectively.

Logan Stieber, a 2016 World champion, lost his opening match at 65kg. Thomas Gilman, the 2017 World silver medalist at 57kg, lost his semifinal match and will go for bronze Monday.

Olympic champions Kyle Snyder and Helen Maroulis begin their world title defenses on Monday and Wednesday, respectively.

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Madison Hubbell, Zach Donohue earn U.S.’ 10th straight Skate America ice dance title

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Make it 10 straight Skate America titles for U.S. ice dance couples. Fittingly, it’s the first for Madison Hubbell and Zach Donohue, the new mantle holders in the nation’s deepest figure skating discipline as the Beijing Olympic cycle begins.

Hubbell and Donohue, the U.S. champions and world silver medalists, distanced a field this weekend lacking anybody else from the top nine at the PyeongChang Olympics (where Hubbell and Donohue were fourth).

They could therefore afford a miscue at the end of Saturday’s rhythm dance, when Hubbell put too much weight sitting on Donohue’s knee. That caused Donohue to put his hands on the ice. She stumbled and stepped on one of his fingers.

No matter, they led by 3.42 points going into Sunday’s free dance, which they topped by 5.1. Hubbell and Donohue distanced silver medalists Charlene Guignard and Marco Fabbri of Italy by 8.52.

Their total — 200.82 — is the highest score in the world this season, granted Olympic silver medalists and world champions Gabriella Papadakis and Guillaume Cizeron of France have yet to debut.

SKATE AMERICA: Full Results

U.S. couples have won 14 of the last 16 Skate America crowns.

It began with Tanith White and Ben Agosto, who earned five total golds surrounding a 2006 Olympic silver medal. Then came Meryl Davis and Charlie White, the best-ever U.S. dance team with four straight Skate Americas leading up to their 2014 Olympic title.

Madison Chock and Evan Bates won in 2014 and 2015, followed by siblings Maia Shibutani and Alex Shibutani in 2016 and 2017.

Hubbell and Donohue took six years before taking their turn at the top. They were third or fourth at every nationals between 2012 and 2017, then won the 2018 U.S. title. They were third in the Olympic short dance, but Donohue’s fall in the PyeongChang free dance helped allow the Shibutanis to take bronze.

The Shibutanis are taking at least this fall off from competition. Canadians Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Olympic champions, are likely done competing.

That makes Hubbell and Donohue, after winning their second Grand Prix event on Sunday (and first in three years), not only the leading American couple, but also the top threats to training partners Papadakis and Cizeron.

Hubbell and Donohue go for another Grand Prix title at next week’s Skate Canada. They won’t face the French (outside of practice) until December’s Grand Prix Final at the earliest.

As a reminder, you can watch the ISU Grand Prix Series live and on-demand with the ‘Figure Skating Pass’ on NBC Sports Gold. GO HERE to sign up for access to every ISU Grand Prix and championship event, as well as domestic U.S. Figure Skating events throughout the season…NBC Sports Gold gives subscribers an unprecedented level of access on more platforms and devices than ever before.

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