By Jonathan Gault
June 24, 2017
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Jenny Simpson is still the queen of U.S. 1500-meter running. In fact, she’s been on top for so long that she’s lost track of how many titles she’s won in a row.
“They said four in a row, but I’m not sure that that’s right … you guys are the ones that will be on that,” Simpson told the assembled crowd of reporters in the mixed zone this afternoon.
Well, we double-checked for you Jenny and yes, today’s win at the 2017 USATF Outdoor Championships made it four straight national titles for the 31-year-old Simpson, who yet again showed why the world has come to fear her kick over the final 100 meters. Entering the home straight, reigning U.S. 800 champion Kate Grace was well-positioned to strike as she sat in second place off Simpson’s outside shoulder, but Simpson was just too strong, pulling away in the final 40 meters to win the women’s 1500 title by daylight, 4:06.33 to 4:06.95 thanks to a stellar 60.41 final lap.
While Simpson was putting an end to the battle for the win, the battle for the third spot to London was just heating up. Lauren Johnson, who made the team two years ago, was in third on the rail with 100 to go, but behind, two women were closing hard: 20-year-old Alexa Efraimson and 31-year-old mother of three Sara Vaughn. With 50 meters to go, Johnson still had a gap on them, but with 25 meters to go, Vaughn had pulled level and Johnson’s arms began flailing as she searched in vain for an extra gear. In the end, it was Vaughn who earned the third spot in her seventh appearance at a USATF Outdoor Championship, clocking 4:07.85 to Johnson’s 4:08.13
Though the winning time of 4:06.33 was not slow, the first 2.75 laps had done little to thin out the field as Simpson, who took the lead with just under 600 meters remaining, led at the bell and the entire field (minus Eleanor Fulton) was within one second of each other. Simpson began squeezing the pace down and on the back stretch, Simpson, Johnson, Grace and Efraimson were single-file in that order and began to separate.
American record holder Shannon Rowbury, doubling back less than 18 hours after last night’s 5,000 final, was nowhere to be seen as she had no wheels on the last lap and would finish eighth. Vaughn? She was 9th with 350 to go and late to respond to Simpson’s move. Vaughn picked it up on the backstretch to move into fifth with 200 to go, but was still five meters back of the fourth-place Efraimson. Had she left it too late?
No. Though she was still fifth with 100 to go, she had closed the gap on Efraimson and set her sights on Johnson, who was beginning to tie up. Vaughn was hurting too as she didn’t blow right by Johnson after catching her, but she had enough to hold on to take third thanks to a 61.27 final lap. After taking a second to collect herself, Vaughn was in a state of shock as she celebrated making her first-ever U.S. outdoor team at age 31.
— LetsRun.com (@letsrundotcom) June 24, 2017
Results (full lap-by-lap splits)
Quick Take: Jenny Simpson remains Mrs. Consistent
Year after year, Simpson shows up to the major championships and gets it done. She’s won three medals in her last five global finals (and in one of the races she didn’t medal, she lost a shoe) and her win today gave her four straight national titles in the 1500.
Simpson’s win today played out similarly to many of her previous victories, in particular last year’s race at the Olympic Trials. Just like last year, Simpson got the lead at the bell, and made her first serious move with 300 to go before laying the wood over the final 100. When you’re the best, why change things up?
But Simpson’s goals are always larger than the national title, and once again she’ll be targeting a medal in London. Simpson will be facing stiff competition — with women like Genzebe Dibaba, Faith Kipyegon, Laura Muir and Sifan Hassan, the 1500 is loaded right now. But Simpson has shown a knack for peaking at the right time and outperforming expectations in the biggest races. Nobody expected her to win Worlds in 2011, and her medal in Rio last year was also somewhat unlikely. She will be in the thick of the medal hunt in London.
Quick Take: Kate Grace takes care of business
Grace was expected to make the team and she did just that on her home track, giving Simpson a solid run for her money before Simpson pulled away. As an 800 runner, Grace thought that might help her on the last lap, but today she got a first-hand look at the long, grinding kick that has powered Simpson to so many wins over the years.
Grace said she had some nerves about moving up to the 1500 after winning the 800 last year, but she trusted that her coach Drew Wartenburg would be able to get her ready. He did, and now she’s headed to London.
Quick Take: Sara Vaughn making her first team at age 31 was one of the most inspiring stories of the meet
It’s unusual for an athlete to make their first U.S. team at age 31. But to do it at age 31 after giving birth to three children? That may be unprecedented.
It has been a long road for Vaughn (nee Ensrud), who began her collegiate career at the University of Virginia but wound up transferring to Colorado, where she was teammates with Simpson and met her husband, 2011 USA XC champ Brent Vaughn. Vaughn had already given birth to one child before she graduated — daughter Kiki is now 10 — and later gave birth to Calia, 7, and, most recently, Cassidy, in 2015.
After Cassidy came along, it looked as if Vaughn’s running career might be over. Though she made the World Indoor team at 1500 meters in 2012, she had not PR’d since that year and was working in real estate in Boulder. But the desire to run still burned within her, and last year she joined Lee Troop’s Boulder Track Club and made it all the way to 7th in the Olympic Trials final despite missing all of the 2015 season.
This year, Vaughn switched coaches from Troop to husband Brent, and the flexibility that has accompanied that move (a necessity with three young daughters) has led to the best season of her career. Her 4:08.61 at Oxy was her fastest time in five years, and she hit the World Champs standard a month later by running a PR of 4:06.64 at the Music City Distance Festival. Now she’s on her way to Worlds.
“I have an almost two-year-old, she’s 22 months. And her favorite line right now is ‘No, my turn, mine.’ So that’s what I was thinking [at the end of that race],” Vaughn said.
Vaughn still works in real estate and balancing that with her duties as a mom can be hectic at times.
“Coming out to Sacramento for a week and pretending to be nothing but a professional runner is kind of weird for me,” Vaughn said. “I feel like I’m forgetting something.”
But despite everything that has happened in her career, there’s always been a part her that knew she could make a team.
“I think to be a distance runner, in general you have to be a little crazy. And then to put yourself in position to make the team at 31 with three kids, maybe you have to be resiliently crazy.”
For more on Vaughn, Daniel Petty wrote a terrific profile of her for The Denver Post during the Olympic Trials last summer.
Quick Take: Alexa Efraimson was disappointed to miss out on the team but is happy with where she’s at right now
The 20-year-old Efraimson, as we’ve pointed out in the past, hasn’t PR’d since 2015, but she has improved her finish at this meet every year.
2014: Eliminated in heats (7th)
2015: Eliminated in heats (4th)
So while 4:03.39 remains her PR (and, it should be pointed out, that is a fantastic PR for a 20-year-old), Efraimson is happy with the direction her career is headed after she decided to turn pro in the fall of 2014.
“I think I’ve been able to work on a lot of other things,” Efraimson said. “So yeah, I might not have PR’d in the 1500 quite yet this season, but I feel like I’ve worked on a lot of stuff and it will all come together probably this summer.”
Quick Take: Shannon Rowbury wanted to challenge herself this year with the 1500/5k double
Rowbury was hoping to qualify for Worlds in both events, but felt confident that she could make it in at least one and that’s what she did, taking second in the 5k last night. After post-race obligations such as media and drug testing, Rowbury didn’t leave the stadium until late last night, so coming back to race again at 2:12 p.m. local time was always going to be a challenge. Rowbury was in position to contend on the last lap but did not have the speed — racing a hard 5k last night certainly didn’t help.
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