Jenny Simpson after the women's 1500m at the IAAF World Athletics Championships Moscow 2013 (© Getty Images)
It would not be an exaggeration to say that the USA is currently the top nation in the world for strength in depth in the women's middle distance events and leading the way is Jenny Simpson.
“It’s an incredible time to be a US woman racing in the middle-distances," reflected Moscow 2013 1500m silver medallist Simpson.
“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.”
No country fielded more finalists in the 800m and 1500m at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow and the USA finished the season with three athletes in the world's top 10 in the 800m and four in the 1500m on the world season lists.
Mary Cain, the 17-year-old phenomenon, joined Simpson in the final in Moscow to become the youngest ever World 1500m finalist while Brenda Martinez ensured the USA would leave the World Championships for the first time with medals in both middle-distance events when taking the bronze in the 800m.
Simpson jokes this unparalleled depth does have a slight downside though: “The most practical impact is there’s never an easy win!”
Her 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 predominantly ran 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 a still-standing US record of 9:12.50 which ranks her 11th 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 (the IAAF Diamond League meeting on the US west coast) 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 best 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."
In 2011, she embarked on her first full season over 1500m. She finished second at the US Championships to seal qualification for her third World Championships and while her results were solid in the run-up to Daegu, they did not indicate Simpson would be vying for the podium.
“I remember, again, having a single goal which was to make the final,” she recalled. “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 this 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 per cent 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 per cent, but I wasn’t counting myself out either.”
Simpson's 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 and she became the first US winner of the 1500m since Mary Decker fended off a memorable last-gasp dive from Zamira Zaytseva at the inaugural 1983 IAAF World Championships.
This upward trajectory momentarily stalled as Simpson admitted 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 said candidly.
However, she immediately bounced back with her most consistent season to date and a solid off-season 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.
She executed her heat and semi-final 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 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.
“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. 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. ”
Even though Simpson didn't come away with the top prize in Moscow, with the plaudits going to Sweden’s dominant Abeba Aregawi, she still reflects on the season with just as much pride as two years before.
“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 win a medal.”
Simpson achieved this objective but without a global outdoor championship to focus on in 2014, she is looking forward to racing frequently although her plans aren't yet 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 Relays 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!”
Steven Mills for the IAAF