It would not be an exaggeration to say the United States, at present, is the greatest nation in terms of strength in depth in the women’s middle-distances. No country fielded more finalists in the women’s 800m and 1500m at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow and the United States finished the season with three athletes ranked inside the world’s top-10 in the 800m and four in the 1500m.
“It’s an incredible time to be a US woman racing in the middle-distances”, reflects world 1500m silver medallist Jenny Simpson who is at the forefront of this global onslaught. “Every race in the US and abroad over 1500m is likely to have a competitive and deep field. Each race is difficult and every win is meaningful and I think the domestic rivalry has elevated all of us and made our event a lot more exciting to watch.”
The impact on the middle-distances in Moscow was tangible. 17-year-old Mary Cain, who has been setting US age-group and high-school records seemingly at will, joined Simpson in the final in Moscow, thus becoming the youngest ever world finalist in the 1500m while Brenda Martinez assured the United States would for the first time leave a major championships with medals in both middle-distance races, taking bronze in the 800m.
Martinez is no slouch over the longer distance, and the 1500m at next year’s US Championships has the potential to rival the sprint events as the must-watch final. Simpson jokes this unparalleled depth does have a slight downside though: “The most practical impact is there’s never an easy win!”
Simpson’s path to stardom followed the tried-and-tested route of the collegiate system. The 27-year-old studied economics and political science at the University of Colorado where she forged a lucrative career on the NCAA circuit, predominantly in the 3000m steeplechase in which she won a hat-trick of NCAA titles.
It was over the barriers where Simpson initially made her mark internationally. The highlight was a fifth-place finish at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin in a still-standing domestic record of 9:12.50 which ranks her eleventh on the world all-time lists. However, it was a race in the build-up to Berlin which proved the seminal moment in mapping out the next four years of her career.
“I entered the 1500m at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene with the singular goal of trying to break the collegiate record at the time of 4:06,” remembers Simpson. She did indeed achieve this, slashing her PB from 4:08.38 to 3:59.90.
“My effort at Pre was a paradigm shift for my career in several ways. It certainly changed how the sport perceived me. I was no longer just a steeplechaser. It also, more slowly, changed how I perceived myself. As the achievement of breaking four-minutes as a collegiate slowly settled on me, I began to realize I could have the opportunity to set the course of my career.
“I’d thought of myself as a steeplechaser with a future in the 5000m and 10,000m but after that race, there just seemed to be less limitations and more possibilities for my future in the sport.”
“It’s funny looking back because so many 1500m races are tactical and messy. It was the perfect race for someone less experienced like myself. It was single-file and fast from the gun so I didn’t have to think much, I just had to run hard and try to keep up.”
That breakthrough performance proved the seismic shift and 2011 marked her first full season over 1500m. She finished second at the US Championships to seal qualification for her third World Championships in succession and while her results were solid in the run-up to Daegu, they did not suggest she would be a threat for the medals.
“I remember, again, having a single goal which was to make the final,” she recalls. “I knew it was going to take all of my focus and training to make it through two rounds and into the final. I was tested that year in a new way and I was so proud to be on the starting line the evening of the final.
“Having achieved that goal, I think I was really relaxed going into the final and I remember saying to my coach, very pragmatically, on the way to the track, ‘well, 25% of us will leave tonight with a medal.’ I really didn’t think in that moment I was going to be one of that 25%, but I wasn’t counting myself out either.”
Simpson’s trademark high-powered finish was the decisive factor in an untidy final. A late charge elevated the middle-distance newcomer from fourth at the top of the home-straight to first where she became the first American winner of the 1500m since Mary Decker fended off that memorable last-gasp dive from Zamira Zaytseva at the inaugural World Championships in 1983,
This upward trajectory momentarily stalled as Simpson admits she over-trained in her bid to arrive at the Olympic Games in optimum shape. Her sprint finish, the potent hallmark of her performance at the 2011 World Championships, deserted her in the semi-finals where she finished last. “The pressure and pageantry of the Olympics in comparison to the World Champs is a different animal altogether,” Simpson says candidly.
It isn’t in Simpson’s nature to dwell and with a world title to defend, she immediately bounced back with her most consistent season to date and a solid off-season block provided the groundwork: “There were so many differences between the years preparation that I think it’s difficult to distinguish exactly what had me more prepared for this year. I can say though the 2013 formula had me extremely confident and really happy throughout the racing season.”
This confidence was palpable. A commanding win in the Monaco Diamond League in her second best career time of 4:00.48 was a clear-cut indicator the reigning champion would be a threat for the medals again in Moscow. She executed the heats and semi-finals with the nous of a seasoned veteran and while her tactical approach in the final was in stark contrast to her sit-and-kick ploy in Daegu, Simpson’s razor-sharp racing instincts bore rich dividends.
“I didn’t go into the final in Moscow with the plan of leading. However, I knew that being drawn in lane one was going to be a little tricky at the start. I think being in that position was a blessing in disguise because it forced me to be very decisive early on in the race. I wanted to be in a position to get to the front before the real “kicking” started but when I found myself leading off of the first curve, I decided I was good enough to control the entire race and I felt more comfortable doing that then letting someone else take over.
“I think that conviction early on set the tone for my entire effort and I think it put me in the best possible position to try to win.”
The authoritative manner of Simpson’s tactical display in Moscow was impressive, and indicative of her growing maturity at the event which she adopted in 2011.
“I think my racing skills come a little naturally but are also learned. The close proximity combined with the physical edge we are racing at is a really unique experience to the 800m and 1500m and the chaos cannot be accurately described in words. There is so much less thinking involved and a lot more instinct. I think some racers naturally have good instinct when it comes to strategy but you can always get better.
“I sometimes watch race footage and workout with groups of people to learn and apply tactics but simulating race scenarios is nearly impossible. You get better by doing it. A bird’s eye view from a camera or being “boxed in” by a training partner almost seems a silly substitution for the real experience of fighting for position against the best women in the world.”
Even though Simpson didn’t come away with the top prize in Moscow, the 2011 world champion still reflects on the season with just as much pride.
“In 2011, I was still relatively new to middle-distance racing and having an unexpected win; there are few things more thrilling and more memorable in one’s career. 2013 was about training and racing like I was one of the best in the world.
“It was a completely different tone to my preparation and a much more mature approach to planning my racing schedule. Racing as a professional and in Diamond League races was new and exciting to me in 2011 but by 2013 every single effort was about how it was going to get me to Moscow ready to medal.”
Simpson achieved this singular goal and a pragmatic racing schedule geared solely towards the championships can partially account for Simpson’s mastery at the major championships. Without any such focus next year, she is looking forward to racing frequently although her plans aren’t yet fully finalised.
“It will be a fun year with the opportunity to focus on new experiences and prioritise regular season races. Having never raced World Indoors, World Relay Champs or run early Diamond League races, it will be more a matter of narrowing down my focus. I can’t do it all, but I’m always tempted to try!”
Her response for her game-plan to bridge the distance on world champion Abeba Aregawi, the perennial thorn in Simpson’s side last season, had much more clarity though.
“What do I need to do to close the gap? Keep getting better at everything.”
This is a slightly extended version of the feature as published on the IAAF website here.