3:31 PM EDT, September 10, 2011
The best thing about Jenny Simpson's surprising victory in the 1,500 meters last week at the World Track & Field Championships was her honest and delightful look of astonishment at crossing the finish line first.
Talk about shock and awe.
After the result long has been relegated to a fading line in the record books, her goggle-eyed reaction to what had just happened still will be a vivid memory to everyone who saw it.
A week later, speaking on a media conference call set up by New Balance, her primary sponsor, among the first words she uttered was, "What I achieved was kind of shocking for me."
A bit later in the call, Simpson added, "I have a medal sitting in my hotel room, and that just seems so unreal to me."
The hotel room was in Rieti, Italy, where Simpson runs her first post-worlds 1,500 Saturday on a track known as the "temple of middle distance running." Her goal is a much faster time than the 4 minutes, 5.4 seconds that made her the slowest 1,500 winner in world meet history -- but times often are pedestrian in distance races at global championships, where tactics trump speed.
"What the world championship changes for me is winning a medal is no longer just kind of this figurative thing out there I'm kind of hoping to maybe some day accomplish," Simpson said.
Figurative. Kind of. Hoping. Maybe.
Wow. That may be a world record for modesty.
Now none of those qualifiers need apply.
"Going into London, I have so much more faith and more belief it's possible and (that) I do belong in whatever race I run," she said.
Now she is no longer just the third-season pro who filled out fields. Now she is the second U.S. woman to win the world title in the metric mile and the first since track legend Mary Decker Slaney in 1983.
And by doing it the year before the Olympics, she is guaranteed to get star treatment from NBC at the London Summer Games.
If she gets there, that is, which is no sure thing given the cutthroat nature of the U.S. Olympic trials, the competition in the 1,500 and the vagaries of injuries -- after all, Simpson missed nearly the entire 2010 season with a stress reaction in her right thigh bone.
In fact, Simpson's safer road to the Olympics -- and possibly to an Olympic medal -- is the steeplechase, the much less glamorous event added to the Olympic program for women only in 2008. Simpson finished ninth in the steeple at the 2008 Games and followed that with a fifth at the 2009 worlds, where she lowered her personal best by nearly 10 seconds to 9:12.50, becoming then the eighth fastest woman ever.
No U.S. woman this year has come within 24 seconds of Simpson's national record in the steeplechase. No one ever has been within 10 seconds of it.
So Simpson, 25, clearly is considering a return to the steeple, which she has not raced this season or last.
"It's important for me to do what's best for my body and best for making teams and earning medals," Simpson said,. "I will have a serious discussion with my coach (Juli Benson), make a decision over this fall and highly specialize in what I choose to race next year, with less dabbling."
(Her 18 races this year have included three 800s, six 1,500s - or nine including prelims - two miles, two 3,000s and two 5,000s.)
One thing is certain: Results in the women's 1,500 at worlds the year before have been a very poor measure of success in the ensuing Summer Games.
Only once in the seven Olympics since the first outdoor worlds in 1983 has the women's 1,500 champion gone on to win Olympic gold. Three times, none of the world medalists made the Olympic podium; only once have two of the world medalists won the Olympic medals.
(A little asterisk is necessary for the 83/84 stats: the Russians who finished 2-3 at 83 worlds were boycotted out of the 84 Olympics, as were two of the other top eight. And Slaney ran the 3,000, where she fell in a collision with Zola Budd, rather than the 1,500.)
Nine women have run the 1,500 faster in the three seasons since the 2008 Olympics than Simpson's personal best of 3.59.90, set in 2009.
Only five have run the steeple faster in the past three seasons than Simpson's personal best.
That is what could make Simpson's race in Rieti -- and her scheduled season finale Thursday in Brussels -- so important to her choice of Olympic event. An impressive time probably would convince her to stick to the metric mile when she returns to training at her home in Colorado Springs.
In Rieti, the field included three women who have run at least two seconds faster this season than Simpson's 2011 best of 4:03.54.
"I really feel my season is continuing to come around, and I am getting better and stronger," Simpson said. I'm excited to celebrate (the world title) but I'm putting it off so I can get in a couple of fast times."
Just the opposite happened. Simpson finished 10th in 4:06.13, more than five seconds behind winner Mariem Alaoui Selsouli of Morocco.
That could have owed to post-worlds fatigue. But the performance was in such sharp contrast to her optimism on the phone Thursday that it can only make the steeplechase option look more attractive.
One sub-par race does not alter this: among fans of track and field, Simpson's immediate reaction to the world title always will be celebrated.
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