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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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Jenny Simpson, Jake Wightman win Fifth Avenue Mile titles

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Jenny Simpson won her sixth straight Fifth Avenue Mile, while Brit Jake Wightman took his first title in the men’s race in a rainy New York City on Sunday.

Simpson, the Olympic bronze medalist and 2011 World champion at 1500m, extended her record to seven overall titles.

She clocked 4:18.9 on the wet road along Central Park, edging U.S. Olympic steeplechaser Colleen Quigley by three tenths. Emma Coburn, the world champion in the 3000m steeple, was fourth in 4:20.5.

“It’s kind of slick, so I wanted to play into that apprehension and take it out hard and say, if you want to run this race, you’ve got to come with me,” Simpson told Lewis Johnson on NBC. “We’re going to risk it all, life and limb.

“Colleen was a really formidable opponent today. I saved a little for her.”

Wightman, a 24-year-old who was 20th in the 1500m at the 2017 Worlds, held off four-time Fifth Avenue Mile winner Nick Willis of New Zealand. Wightman hit the tape in 3:53.6, six tenths ahead of Willis.

Olympic 1500m champion Matthew Centrowitz, who missed a week or two of training in August with a calf strain, finished 16th.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly listed Centrowitz finishing 12th.

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Matthew Centrowitz redeems, Jenny Simpson upset at USATF Outdoors

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Matthew Centrowitz never doubted — and, based on post-race comments, other top American milers didn’t, either — but after a dreadful year that followed his Olympic breakthrough, and moving across the country, his fifth national title had unique significance.

“Satisfaction out there,” Centrowitz told Lewis Johnson on NBC after winning the 1500m at the USA Track and Field Outdoor Championships. “A little sense of relief, get back on top.

“I wouldn’t say it was my best race since the Olympics, but it was a step in the right direction.”

Centrowitz regained best American miler status 55 minutes after Jenny Simpson‘s run of four straight 1500m titles ended in Des Moines on Saturday.

Centrowitz, who in Rio became the first U.S. Olympic 1500m champion in 108 years, won in typical fashion, moving toward the front on a 57-second penultimate lap and outkicking the field on the home stretch.

He crossed in 3:43.37, just .04 faster than his runner-up time a year ago and a comfortable .26 ahead of Izaik Yorks. Centrowitz, whose past celebrations included odes to Cam Newton and J.R. Smith, this time held his right hand to his ear to mimic a phone.

“I was calling 911,” Centrowitz said, “report a murder.”

It marked Centrowitz’s first win on this kind of stage since Rio. Last year, Centrowitz was unable to get more than two straight weeks of healthy training all season due in part to adductor issues and an ER visit with a viral infection. It showed at nationals, where Olympic teammate Robby Andrews beat him. It was clearer at worlds, where a listless Centrowitz finished last in his first-round heat.

Centrowitz announced in January he relocated from Portland, Ore., to work with his dad, a former competitive runner, in the D.C. area but would still be coached from long distance by Alberto Salazar. Then at the Pre Classic last month, Centrowitz was not the top finishing American in the Bowerman Mile for the first time since 2013 (though he missed the meet in 2016 and 2017).

Didn’t matter Saturday. Other U.S. milers still deferred.

“When you get into these big races with Matt, it’s like when you get into a big race with [four-time Olympic gold medalist] Mo [Farah], these guys, you kind of let them do things that you wouldn’t let someone you know you’re better than get away with,” third-place finisher and Nike Oregon Project teammate Eric Jenkins said. “They do what they want. They get into position. They take what they want. It comes with being as good as they are.”

Andrews, bounced in the first round Thursday, texted Centrowitz congratulations. Centrowitz is now one U.S. title shy of Steve Scott‘s post-World War II record. That’s on his mind.

“At this point in my career, I want to keep checking off boxes to leave my mark in the 1500m in the U.S,” said Centrowitz, whose personal best from 2015 of 3:30.40 makes him the third-fastest American all time behind Bernard Lagat and Sydney Maree.

With no world championships or Olympics this season, Centrowitz still has motivation. He would like to win a Diamond League race (no U.S. man has done so in the 1500m) and finish the year ranked No. 1 in the country.

“My dad always calls it the three Hs,” Centrowitz said. “I’ve got to be happy, healthy and hungry. …. Relatively speaking, I’ve been healthy since Jan. 1, and I was hungrier than ever today.”

USATF Outdoors conclude Sunday on NBC (4-6 p.m. ET) and NBC Sports Gold (12:30-6 p.m.), highlighted by 200m, 5000m and 110m hurdles finals.

USATF Outdoors: TV Schedule | Results | Women’s Preview | Men’s Preview

Simpson, the Olympic bronze medalist, was beaten by Olympic 5000m runner Shelby Houlihan for the second time this season. The Sioux City native Houlihan surged past Simpson on the final straight, just as she did at the Pre Classic last month.

“I’m totally bummed, but I guess I have a lot of practice at losing as well as winning,” Simpson told media in Des Moines. “It felt a little weird being at U.S. Championships and getting outkicked.”

Houlihan won in 4:05.48, .73 ahead of runner-up Simpson.

“I feel like she’s way ahead of me,” Houlihan said of Simpson. “She’s someone I’ve looked up to since high school.”

In other events, Deanna Price took the American record back from Gwen Berry with a 78.12-meter hammer throw, the best in the world this year.

Shakima Wimbley and Kahmari Montgomery won their first U.S. titles in the 400m.

Wimbley prevailed in 49.52, lowering her personal best by .66, tying the fastest time in the world this year and torching a field lacking the last two world champions, Phyllis Francis and Allyson Felix. Wimbley showed promise at the Pre Classic last month, finishing third behind Olympic champion Shaunae Miller-Uibo and Francis.

Montgomery clocked 44.58 to win, two weeks after finishing seventh at the NCAA Championships for the University of Houston. The men’s field lacked 2008 Olympic champion LaShawn Merritt and Michael Norman, the fastest man in the world this year who opted to race the 200m this week.

World-record holder Kendra Harrison repeated as 100m hurdles champion. Harrison clocked 12.46, off of her world record of 12.20. Olympic champion Brianna McNeal, who beat Harrison in Shanghai on May 12, was not in the field.

World gold and silver medalists Emma Coburn and Courtney Frerichs went one-two in the 3000m steeplechase. Coburn, the Olympic bronze medalist, earned her seventh national title in eight years by clocking 9:17.70. She pulled away from Frerichs on the last lap to win by .99. Nobody else finished within 15 seconds.

“[Frerichs] gave me a run for my money,” Coburn, who has been beaten by a countrywoman once in eight years, said on NBC. “This is going to be a battle that’s worth watching for years to come.”

In the pole vault, Olympic bronze medalist and world champion Sam Kendricks cleared 5.85 meters for his fifth straight U.S. title.

Vashti Cunningham repeated as high jump champion by clearing 1.95 meters. Cunningham, whose father and coach is retired NFL All-Pro quarterback Randall Cunningham, was 13th at the Olympics and 10th at the world championships.

Darrell Hill upset Olympic champion Ryan Crouser in the shot put, winning with a 21.57-meter throw. Hill improved to 3-17 against Crouser. Crouser came to Des Moines with the top 23 throws by an American this year out of his 24 total legal throws, according to Tilastopaja.org. But on Saturday he had five fouls in six throws. His only legal throw was 20.99 meters for second place.

NCAA runner-up Kenny Selmon won the 400m hurdles from lane eight against a field that lacked Olympic champion Kerron Clement. Selmon clocked 48.21 seconds, three tenths ahead of TJ Holmes, who was fifth at 2017 Worlds.

The favorites advanced to Sunday’s semifinals in the 200m and 110m hurdles, including 400m indoor world-record holder Michael Norman and Olympian Ameer Webb in the 200m and world-record holder Aries Merritt, Olympian Devon Allen and NCAA champion Grant Holloway in the hurdles.

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