"I don't know that it will ever truly sink in." That's how Jennifer "Jenny" Simpson describes how it feels, three months afterwards, to be the World champion at 1500m.
"It was a pure sense of joy, because it was a success that came without the burden of expectation. I wasn't the one everyone was depending on to come home with a medal. With some people, there's a sense of relief, but for me it was just an incredible, fun experience."
With 2011 drawing to a close and the Olympic year looming, Simpson and her coach, former international Juli Benson, looked back at what went right and what went wrong in 2011 and decided, as Simpson says, "There's not a lot to change. We did a good job, let's keep doing that. There's no new mission, just to be consistent, stay strong, stay healthy, and get to the starting line."
Simpson draws a parallel to her collegiate career at the University of Colorado, where, as Jennifer Barringer, she ran 3:59 for 1500m. Coach Mark Wetmore told her then, "Now you'll never be an underdog."
Goal – to channel expectations gracefully
"You wave goodbye to those days when people don't expect anything of you," Simpson says. "It's unrealistic to expect things will be the same. But now I have the opportunity to channel all that expectation gracefully into another successful season, instead of seeing it as having some sort of order to fill."
After graduating in 2009, she lost most of 2010 to injury, making 2011 her first complete professional season. Her startling maturity comes from her cultivation of a mental jujitsu which absorbs setbacks and pressure and turns them to her advantage. When, for example, the topic of her winning time in Daegu is raised - 4:05.40, the slowest in championship history - Simpson says, "There's not one person who wouldn't love to win a World Championships medal." She doesn't add the obvious conclusion: if it's so easy to win in 4:05, why didn't someone else do it? Speaking to a softball team near her training base of Monument, Colorado, where she lives and trains, Simpson said, "Don't let anyone say you won by accident. Don't let people take away from what you've accomplished. Once you've done it, you own it."
It's no surprise, then, that Simpson displays no concern about entering the Olympic year as the reigning World champion. "Managing the stress and expectation is the key," she says. "Training is the least of the challenge."
First, she points out, she will need to get to the Olympics, no small feat in itself. The United States Olympic Team Trials will likely see three sub-4:00 1500m runners (Simpson, Anna Pierce, and Christin Wurth-Thomas) in the final, not to mention 2011 Samsung Diamond League winner Morgan Uceny.
"I had to run 4:05 [in June] just to make the U.S. team" for Daegu, Simpson points out. "The pressure at the U.S. Championships is a great vetting process for the same pressures and challenges at the World Championships and Olympics. It's a different dynamic. The people who are going to do well [at the global meets] are the ones who not only race well, but can handle that stress. We can choose to use that [Trials] experience, or worry about whether we can make the team."
Admiration for rivals
Another recurring theme in Simpson's conversation is her considered admiration for her rivals. Her steeplechase career, which included a 9th place finish in the 2008 Olympic final and 5th in the 2009 World Championships final, is intertwined with that of Pierce. Starting as collegians in 2007, the two traded the American record through 2008 and 2009 and lowered it more than fifteen seconds, to Simpson's 9:12.15 set in Berlin.
"The rivalry was exciting, and it put me on the map," Simpson says. She has similar praise for Uceny, who won the U.S. title in 2011 and joined Simpson in the final in Daegu. "Morgan had such great consistency" in 2011, she says. "She was on for every race. That's another area where I could stand to improve."
When Pierce graduated, Simpson had to face Sally Kipyego regularly in conference and national meets when the Kenyan 10,000m silver medallist was running at Texas Tech University. "If I hadn't had to race Sally so often, I might have been able to settle," she explains. "She forced me to train so hard, and when she did amazing things, I would say, I can do this too." Watching Kipyego's silver medal race in Daegu reinforced Simpson's conviction that a medal was possible in her own race. The pair then finished 1-2 in the Fifth Avenue Mile in New York, where Kipyego told Simpson, "I was screaming and crying watching your race" in Daegu.
Unlike Uceny and Pierce, who train with the Mammoth Track Club in the mountains of California, or Kipyego, who trains with the Oregon Track Club in Eugene, Simpson is not part of an organised training group. Benson is the coach at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and Simpson lives in nearby Monument. She works as a volunteer assistant for Benson, and says, "I don't feel alone in Monument. I have great medical and training support from the Olympic Training Center [in Colorado Springs] and they understand Olympic sport athletes. I have access to the Air Force Academy facilities, and between them I have two great communities. [Benson] has a couple of post-collegiate athletes in the Air Force World Class Athlete Program," a developmental program run by the U.S. military, "and I run with the cadets on my easy days. I get to train with people as good or better than I am, and I never have to worry about racing them."
Simpson adds, "I was worried about how a military academy would handle having a woman training with them, but if you work hard and are good at what you do, they respect that no matter who you are. They want the fight and the win, and if you have both, they respect you."
Simpson sees her challenge in the coming year as simply arriving at the London start line healthy and relaxed. Duplicating Daegu's winning run isn't even a consideration.
"I never think about race strategy," she says. "Planning how to position myself in the pack is dependent on the decisions of other people. Juli and I meet in the middle on this; she convinced me that it's worthwhile to practice certain race scenarios in order to be prepared for them, and to understand that there are points in the race where it's important to have a sense of where you are."
As a result of this, and of her relatively short career as a miler, Simpson says, "I still feel like a total rookie in this event. I finished this year feeling like I can do it so much better. I feel like I still have a lot to learn, and that really excites me."
Parker Morse for the IAAF