World Championships Day 7: Getting to know Jenny Simpson
by M. Nicole Nazzaro
The evening session at day 7 of the World Track and Field Championships in Moscow brought with it a particularly satisfying moment for Team USA: the medal ceremony for the women’s 1500-meter run, the last race contested yesterday evening. While prerace favorite and 2013 world leader Abeba Aregawi of Sweden won the gold medal, as expected, the silver medal went to Jenny Simpson of the United States, who was the surprise 2011 world champion in Daegu. What a satisfying result for the Colorado resident, especially after not making the Olympic final last year in London.
Simpson visited with us before her competition began. Sitting at the Crowne Plaza hotel in Moscow a week ago, two days before the women’s 1500-meter heats began, Simpson was alternately relaxed, thoughtful, and reflective about the journey from the steeplechase, where she started making a name for herself, to world-beating 1500-meter runner. What I found particularly compelling about our conversation was Simpson’s description of what a runner goes through in a championship event in terms of mental preparation. Excerpts from our conversation:
On the mindset you have going into the qualifying rounds of a major championship: It’s a misconception that the rounds are easy. People really discount how hard the rounds are, because even if the rounds are 4:11 or 4:08, that’s still a really hard effort. You wouldn’t do that in practice. And it’s never an even 4:11 or an even 4:08. It’s always jogging around and a really hard last lap, so you have to be able to close just as hard, or harder, than you do even in the final. And there’s just a lot of jockeying around, there’s a lot of strategy.
On not psyching yourself out in the final: There’s so many rounds of elimination. By the time you get to the final, you’re one of the top twelve women in the world. And it’s not because they picked you out of a hat. It’s because you proved it. So making a final, that’s a pretty prestigious place to be. When I was in college, I would always tell our freshmen this: as the race progresses, you should be thinking, “I’ve put in so much work – why throw in the towel now?” Especially when you get to a world championships or an NCAA championships. I say that this is almost less nerve-wracking than earlier races in the season, because you’ve really earned this, you really belong here, and there’s kind of a natural buildup to this [final]. I always try to calm myself down and say, if I wasn’t supposed to be here, if I wasn’t capable of being here, they would have eliminated me. And so I say that’s part of the process that I embrace to kind of keep my nerves in check.
On her mindset during her world championship win in Daegu: Going into the last lap, I was in seventh or eighth place, so I don’t even think I had registered how good my medal chances were [at that point]. And so I went into the final curve, and with 150 meters to go, I really had caught on to the back of that big group of people. It was a really big group. It was relatively slow for a championship final, not anything compared to last year [London], but up to that point in history it was relatively slow, so everybody still kind of had a shot. So I caught the group, and I started to count the number of people there, and thinking I could be top three. And I remember stopping myself and saying, “just finish the race!” Just finish. And I remember that moment, and I’m proud of that moment, because I think that was the moment when I won the gold medal, instead of just medaling, because I think that was a really important and decisive moment where I stayed true to just executing the race instead of considering the possibilities before it was over.
On her reaction to her win in Daegu: I remember crossing the finish line and literally having this thought – like, “now what do I do?” I didn’t know how to react, I didn’t know how to celebrate, I didn’t know where I was supposed to go. You can’t imagine this until you’ve experienced it, but in most races, especially Diamond League races, you cross the finish line and the person who wins is immediately handed flowers, and there are photographers down on the track, and meet officials showing you where to go. I’m sure it probably has something to do with the security or maybe also it was just in my mind, time was kind of standing still – but there’s not that kind of immediate rush of people down to the athletes on the track in the Olympics or world championships. You’re kind of out there for this suspended period of time, and then you make your way over to the mixed zone. And so there was a moment [when I thought] “I need some validation that this actually happened!” One of the girls from the race came over and gave me a hug, and that’s when it was really real to me. She congratulated me and that’s the picture of me jumping up and down and really excited. And I ran straight to the mascot, and tackled the mascot! I needed someone to accept my joy and affection, and it was just really funny! He was a really good sport.