At the 2011 track & field world championships in Daegu, South Korea, Jenny Simpson got the surprise of a lifetime; track & field circles (ovals if you prefer) consider the photo that captured her reaction as the photo of the year. Someone unknowing of her recent accomplishment may ask,
"Jenny Simpson, are you going to the moon?"
Nope, that's not it. This was a look of shock and awe, a willing suspension of disbelief, caught in a moment of hope and uncertainty.
"Jenny Simpson, did you just win the lottery?"
Sorry, try again. It was wide-eyed amazement, euphoria tied up under some thought that it might just be a dream.
"Jenny Simpson, you're a world champion?"
That's the scene. If ever the thrill of victory had a pinch-me freeze frame, there it was. And the response was absolutely appropriate: Simpson was just a rookie miler on the international circuit, competing in an event she was coaxed into by injury. She was the national runner-up in an event no U.S. athlete had won on the world stage in 28 years, crossing the line ahead of presumptive favorites at the World Championships in Daegu last month.
"With 400 meters [left], I was not thinking I was going to win," recalls Simpson, who at that point was still near the back of a tightly bunched pack. "With 150 meters to go at the top of the turn, I was beginning to count the people in front of me and I was thinking, 'I could get a medal.' I had so much left, and I was watching women fade into my peripheral vision."
One by one, she passed runners from Ethiopia, Morocco and Spain and finally the aptly named Briton Hannah English. "I was focused on the scoreboard waiting for some kind of confirmation," Simpson says. "What have I just done? Was it real? I was waiting for someone to hand me a bouquet of flowers or shake hands, so I knew." It isn't as if Simpson had propelled herself from nowhere, because her training times suggested she had it in her. But competition calls you out - it either lifts you or freezes you.
As a student in Ovideo, Florida, Simpson hadn't played other sports; she always ran. In a community mile run that became her first formal race, nine-year-old Simpson lost by a dive at finish line. To this day, the fuel from the loss hasn't entirely burned off. The victorious girl named Brittany became a cheerleader, and her resonant face is still a source of tail wind when Simpson needs a training push.
Simpson originally raced in the 3000-meter steeplechase, a fairly new event for women. While attending the University of Colorado, Simpson (then known by her maiden name Barringer) qualified for the world championships in 2007 and the Olympic Trials in 2008. At the Trials, Simpson finished third, earning a trip to Beijing. But she wasn't happy; Simpson expected to win the trials.
"Making the Olympic team should not feel like this," she says.
In Beijing, she qualified for the final and placed ninth at the Games, essentially altering her identity. "Before, when people met me it would take a ten minute explanation of what the steeplechase was and then ... here's Jenny," she says. "But if you tell people you're an Olympian, they know what it is."
A year later, she placed fifth at worlds in a U.S. steeplechase record of 9:12.50. That same year, she broke four minutes in the 1,500-meters, gamely trying to chase down Ethiopia's Gelete Burka at the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene. It was the first real indication that she could run the mile and 1,500 with the elites.
She missed most of the 2010 season because of a stress reaction in her right femur. She got married in the fall and then eased back into training for a new event. After her injury, she was at a crossroads of sorts.
"The steeple is an injury-prone event," she says. "The decision was more a result of injury. I couldn't train for it. I wasn't ready to go back to the barriers."
Simpson has always had a passion for running, but was never a slave to it. She is a voracious reader and ice cream connoisseur, earning a double degree in political science and economics at Colorado. She was thinking of law school as much as she was thinking of another trip to the Olympics. "I began to wonder with my training what it would be like if I had several years without real work experience," she says. It took some affirmation from her father, Bruce Barringer, a professor, to tell her, "The Olympics won't exactly detract from your resume. People will understand."
Simpson may just be the sort of athlete who responds best to anonymity or doubt, a burst from the shadows as the spotlight follows someone else. Last year, she returned for a final semester at Colorado, a strong favorite to win the NCAA cross-country title. Instead, perhaps overwhelmed by pre-race presumptions, she collapsed in midrace.
"I allowed that one race to define the last semester," she said. "I had allocated such energy to this one thing. Then I plopped over. I literally remember lying on the ground saying how did I get here? Hundreds of girls were passing me." Most runners would have stepped off the course. Simpson felt obliged to keep going. "You have to maintain a level of dignity here and not make a scene, and I wanted to score for my team." Simpson finished 169th, but -- the Letterman inflection of irony isn't necessary here - it was a dignified 169th.
Soon after her college career ended, she was courted by five companies who wanted to be her chief pro sponsor. Simpson skipped a couple of larger, more visible brands, but chose New Balance. "They never put pressure on me to push the brand forward," she says. There's the dignity again.
Of course now, Simpson won't be able to convince herself or anyone else that she is an Olympic underdog. The opportunities will follow her and the media request list will get longer. NBC and others will proclaim her as one to watch. The target on her will also be apparent as she runs down the streets of New York against a strong field at the Fifth Avenue Mile this weekend. She's likely to opt next summer for the 1,500-meters, the event she didn't even win at nationals just a month before her world triumph (Morgan Uceny, who fell during the world final, was the U.S. champion this summer). But Simpson is now a running graduate. She's the cheery face of U.S. women's distance running as we hit the bell lap before the London Olympics. It should no longer be a face of surprise.