Olympics: Jenny Simpson Earns First Women’s 1,500 Medal
It started like a Tuesday evening group jog around Lake Merritt. But the finalists in the women’s 1,500 meters had something in mind at Olympic Stadium.
They knew they could not stay with world-record holder Genzebe Dibaba of Ethiopia, one of the greatest middle-distance runners of their generation.
So, San Francisco’s Shannon Rowbury and fellow competitors turned the opening act of the event into an almost laughable race walk while jogging through the first lap in 76 seconds.
The slow pace led to a mad-sprint finish, with Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon winning in 4 minutes, 8.92 seconds, a 1.35-second cushion over stunned silver medalist Dibaba. The slow-it-down strategy also helped the United States win its first 1,500-meters medal in history when Jenny Simpson outdueled Rowbury for third place.
“This is a beautiful sport,” Simpson told reporters. “There are no style points. This is all about objectively who can get to the finish line first.”
Kipyegon lied on the track sobbing after a final lap of faster than 58 seconds was enough to chase down Dibaba, who set the world record last year in 3:50.07. Her only misstep occurred when momentarily stumbling during a victory lap with the Kenyan flag.
While the Ethiopia-vs.-Kenya storyline played out as planned, the United States’ presence was as unexpected as Dibaba’s loss. Americans had become accustomed to unfilled promise in a fickle race that takes speed, endurance and strategy. The great Mary Decker Slaney, Suzy Favor Hamilton and Francie Larrieu had never won a medal despite spectacular careers.
Simpson, 29, stepped into the spotlight to end the Americans’ misfortunes in a race added to the Olympic program in 1972.
“I love feeling that stress on the last lap,” Simpson told reporters. “I was one of the crowd who could maybe get third so I’m really happy.”
Not bad for a runner who failed to reach the final in London four years ago when Rowbury was sixth.
Simpson, 29, crossed the line in 4:10.53, while Rowbury, 31, was .58 of a second behind in fourth.
“My coaches knew what would bring out the best in me was being a predator and having the opportunity to run people down,” Simpson said.
She and Rowbury took off in the final 200 meters to pass others for the finish at least Simpson had hoped to achieve.
“I want to be someone that this country can be real proud to cheer for,” the Boulder, Colorado, runner added.
She had won the 2011 world championship and finished second two years later. But the Olympics hold a special place for general U.S. sports fans who ignore these events the rest of the four-year cycle.
“It’s been a long ride of highs and lows,” Simpson said.
Rowbury, a fourth-generation San Franciscan, has experienced a similar trajectory throughout her career. A year ago, she broke a 31-year-old American record in the 1,500 meters in the same race Dibaba got the world mark. But times haven’t meant as much as results to the Sacred Heart Cathedral Prep alumna.
“Ultimately you have to place well,” she said a 2015 interview.
It seemed Kipyegon carried a similar attitude to the track Tuesday night.
When Dibaba took off at the midpoint, Kipyegon quickly settled in just behind. Then came the bell lap with Dibaba immediately increasing the pace only to find Kipyegon still with her. The Kenyan had the final burst to upset the reigning world champion.
“I knew she was going to sprint ahead in the last 800 but I had prepared well and was confident I would go with her,” Kipyegon told reporters. “I saw the first lap was slow so I knew there was no challenge and I was flexible and ready for any pace.”
Dibaba acknowledged that training has been off since her coach was arrested this summer during a sting operation in Spain where authorities confiscated 60 syringes and vials of the banned blood-boosting drug erythropoietin, known as EPO, at a hotel.
She denied any culpability in the episode with Jama Aden, who coaches a group of world-class African runners with training camps in Spain and Sweden. Dibaba said she would find a new coach if Aden is found guilty.
In the morning session at the track, reigning champion Christian Taylor soared to victory in the men’s triple jump to become the first American to win consecutive titles in the event since 1904.
Taylor leapt 58 feet, 71/4 inches to secure the victory, while teammate Will Claye was second to become the first in history to earn consecutive silver medals.
World champion Derek Drouin of Canada won the men’s high jump with a clearance of 7 feet, 8 inches, while Omar McLeod took the 110-meter hurdles title in 13.05 seconds, giving Jamaica its first Olympic gold in the event. Orlando Ortega of Spain won the silver in 13.17 and Dimitri Bascou of France the bronze. Oregon football star Devon Allen was fifth in 13.31. Contact Elliott Almond at 408-920-5865. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/elliottalmond